20 Books of Summer, #17, #18 and #19: Painter to the King, Asymmetry and An American Marriage

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Amy Sackville’s third novel, Painter to the King, reads as if Sackville is guiding us through a series of living paintings that make up the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. The future Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland turns up on an ill-fated courtship with the Duke of Buckingham, his father’s infamous favourite, in tow; Philip’s own favourite, the count-duke Olivares, is the power behind the throne; among all this, Diego Velázquez, painter to the king, watches, observes and records. Sackville’s writing is deliberately distancing and closely observational, especially when she’s describing the process of painting. Unlike Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, she doesn’t take us deeply into court intrigue but leaves us alongside Velázquez, who’s not always a prominent figure in the novel himself, but who is always present.

Sackville also reflects explicitly on the process of trying to get at the life of somebody like Velázquez, giving us a narrator – probably Sackville herself – who is retracing his steps through Madrid and often finding little left of the places he had known. These palimpsest bits of the story were the most intriguing bits for me; the traces of autofiction reminded me a bit of Jessie Greengrass’s marvellous Sight, and they add a kind of human contact to the novel that it badly needs. Unfortunately, they’re scattered only occasionally through the book.

Having read and loved The Still Point and Orkney, I already knew Sackville was a wonderful writer, but unlike these previous novels, Painter to the King feels somewhat like an extended writing exercise. The intense focus on the visual surfaces of things means that the reader never really ‘gets to know’ any of the central characters, and perhaps that’s the point; Sackville is exploring what we can know about these people who’ve been handed down to us in paint. However, for me, this stylistic choice left the novel virtually unreadable, whereas as a shorter piece it might have worked very well. I love that Sackville has taken such a bold step away from the frozen landscapes of her earlier work, but this novel ultimately left me cold.

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I wrote up a proper review of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday’s dazzling debut, about a week ago, but WordPress decided to eat it. Therefore, I’ll have to say briefly that it’s brilliant. The novel begins on familiar territory, when a young editor, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. (As all the reviews have noted, this reflects Halliday’s own relationship with Philip Roth, but as I’ve never read anything by Roth and know very little about him, this simply shows that one can enjoy this novel while missing many of the in-jokes and references that are probably present). In its second half, it starts telling a different kind of story altogether, when Iraqi-American economist Amar Jaafari is detained by border officials at Heathrow. Spoilers ahead – although I guessed the twist in this novel pretty early and don’t think it matters if you know about it ahead of time or not.

When we realise that the Amar section of the novel is actually written by Alice, it becomes clear what a brave thing Halliday has done. By allowing us to see her workings, we can unpick all the usual questions readers like to ask about whether or not a story is ‘authentic’ and how closely it ‘relates to the writer’s own life.’ There are little intersections for us to catch at, like the moment when Alice is called up for jury duty, overhears a Muslim man talking about his family, and is told that ‘Amar Jaafari’ has failed to turn up for his own jury service. When the coda to the novel turns out to be a pitch-perfect, fictitious interview with Ezra on Desert Island Discs, it might be tempting to believe that Halliday is simply showing off her literary ventriloquism. As this wonderful Atlantic review puts it: Asymmetry is a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word—a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade.’ However, unlike Painter to the King, there’s too much heart in Asymmetry for it to be misread as a technical experiment. It’s one of the very few books that, when I’d finished it, I wanted to start from the beginning and read all over again.

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An American Marriage – one of Barack Obama’s summer reads – highlights a universal injustice with a closely personal focus. African-American couple Celestial and Roy have been married barely a year when Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman and sent to jail for twelve years. Celestial promises to wait for her husband, but as Roy’s days in prison roll by, the previous cracks between them start to widen. Celestial ‘comes from money’, whereas Roy’s father worked his way up from nothing. Roy’s early brashness and ambition shows that he feels he has something to prove, whereas Celestial’s instilled middle-class confidence leads her to start her own business selling expensive, handmade baby dolls – although it’s Roy who hits on the right name for the business, Poupées. How can Roy rebuild his life again once he’s freed? What does Celestial owe to Roy, hailed as a martyr by the black community – and what should she be allowed to keep for herself?

This is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, and experience shows – her writing is effortlessly readable. Jones doesn’t dwell on the details of Roy’s trial or the wider media and community response to the case, preferring to keep her lens tightly trained on Celestial, Roy, and the old friend who becomes mixed up in their personal tragedy, Andre. While the subject-matter is not especially groundbreaking, this stylistic choice means we can’t help but feel for all three of these characters. As Rebecca noted in her review, this would be a perfect reading group book, and I’ll be recommending it to my own book group (which only reads books by people of colour, so this is a good fit) when it comes out in paperback. Jones handles the intersections of class, race and gender so lightly that this book never feels didactic, and yet leaves the reader with plenty to think about.

20 Books of Summer ends today, so that’s nineteen books read, with two official substitutions, and one left unread, Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan. My most successful summer yet! I’ll be posting a retrospective on the challenge later this week, and talking about my reading plans for the autumn.

How did you do with 20 Books of Summer, or with your summer reading? Would you do the challenge again?

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16 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #17, #18 and #19: Painter to the King, Asymmetry and An American Marriage

  1. I know the style of the Sackville would drive me mad, despite the rave reviews from Sarah Perry and Elle! I liked her Orkney and mean to read The Still Point, though.

    I thought Asymmetry was very clever and should have gotten more prize nominations to go with its buzz. It’ll be interesting to see what Halliday does next.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – I’m really surprised that Asymmetry wasn’t on either/both the Women’s Prize and Booker longlists. I thought the quality of the Women’s Prize longlist was really high, but it would have blown all the other titles out of the water for me.

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  2. I HAVE to read Asymmetry now. We’ll agree to disagree on the Sackville, which I thought was fantastic (but then I am weirdly addicted to writing about other art forms, like painting or dance…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’d really like Asymmetry. I so wanted to love the Sackville, but I just didn’t! I also like writing about other art forms, with the exception of music (as you know!) but I think I’m especially interested in the craft aspects of painting in historical novels, i.e. what materials, what techniques, what’s fashionable and what the painter is doing differently, and Painter to the King was more about Velazquez’s artist’s eye.

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  3. Asymmetry has been on my radar for a while now, but you’ve convinced me to officially put it on my list!

    I’ll be reading An American Marriage soon… it’s next on the list for Literary Wives.

    Liked by 1 person

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