Books · Reviews

The Portrait, Ian Pears

I came across the audiobook of this when searching for Peter Capaldi on my Hoopla* app. I wasn’t aware of what a treat it would be.

The story is narrated by Henry MacAlpine, an artist who was coming into his success in London when he decided to take off to a remote island off the coast of Brittany. Life on the island is not exactly ideal or inspiring for an artist (or anyone, for that matter), with its harsh weather and sparse landscape, but MacAlpine is content to call it home and maintains little to no contact with his former acquaintances – until he receives a letter from an old friend, William Nasmyth, a renowned art critic who has commissioned a portrait from him. The narrative is given in the second person, as MacAlpine addresses Nasmyth while he works on the portrait. The conversation – or, more accurately, monologue – spans the length of their friendship, from when Henry met William in art school to Henry’s departure from London, featuring a few of their mutual acquaintances. Two figures in particular are given focus: a model/prostitute named Jacky and a fellow artist named Evelyn. Both women, it turns out, played a big part in Henry’s life as an artist; more so than Nasmyth probably could’ve guessed. Henry admits to the admiration, almost reverence, he had for William at the beginning of their relationship, as the latter was clearly more knowledgeable and worldly and so much more confident in his abilities. Over time though, in the course of their dealings with others, Henry began to see how vengeful his friend could be, how judgemental he was towards others and how unashamedly he could use the power he was quickly amassing in the art world to bring down those he deemed unworthy. He began to rethink how high he should be holding this good friend of his, and kept his distance the best he could until, of course, that distance spanned a different country altogether. Henry carefully explains his intentions for the portrait – that he wants it not to simply be a picture capturing an image for posterity, but that he wants to capture the essence of the subject himself. And, he explains, this can only be done by someone who knows the subject well. Throughout the sitting, Henry reveals all the ugly parts of their past, including the reason why he fled London four years earlier, and justifies his current treatment of his “friend.” The book ends on something of a cliffhanger (and I’d never be one to spoil it for you), in my opinion, because I don’t think you can definitively say that it went one way or the other. By this time, you couldn’t really blame Henry for whatever action he decided to take.

As I mentioned at the top, this audiobook was a treat to listen to. I was introduced to Peter Capaldi through “Doctor Who,” but I’ve become a fan of other things of his since then. His reading and performance of this book was almost perfect, his Scottish accent conveniently fitting in with the background of the narrator, and his inflections and expressions capturing that typical artist angst, as well as the gamut of emotions that MacAlpine goes through during the course of the book. Knowing that he was an art student himself added a sort of credibility and more meaning to the story when Henry MacAlpine discussed various aspects of art and painting. The story itself I found very well-paced. There was the mystery at the beginning of why MacAlpine exiled himself to this sad spot of land in the middle of nowhere; learning that he had success in London as an artist and probably could’ve made a decent living for himself only added to the sense of inquiry. The introductions of Jacky and Evelyn seemed like a throwaway at first, until they kept popping up before you learn how big a part they actually played in both men’s lives. The revelations about the men’s friendship were perfectly timed and did not ramble which, I imagine, is difficult to do when writing in a second person POV. By the end, the reader can conclude that neither man is completely innocent of whatever wrongs occurred in their relationship, but whatever end comes to it is justified. It does require a bit of suspension of disbelief – because who could actually carry on a one-sided conversation for days on end? – and the unusual way in which the story is told may take some time to get the hang of, but it pays off in the end.

Goodreads rating: 4/5

*Hoopla, if you haven’t heard of it, is a lending service app that links to your library account, allowing you to borrow up to eight titles per month of music, movies, tv shows, ebooks, or audiobooks. I might make a more detailed post about this in the future, but for now, just check it out; I highly recommend it.


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