This excellent read provides the backdrop to the life and work of Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro/Pissarro – one of the leading lights in the French Impressionist movement. The central character is not so much this dissident and incandescent artist, however, but his mother Rachel, from whom he inherits his rebellious spirit. Attempts to veil her favouritism towards this last child of many result in the harsh rule she struggled against with her own mother. Hoffman sensitively weaves her story of several complex relationships, including Rachel’s love for her mother’s cook Adelle and Adelle’s daughter Jestine, whose paternity is unclear, and suspect.
Set on the then Danish island of St.Thomas in the Caribbean, Hoffman’s story takes place in the early 1800’s among the refugee Jewish community who settled there after fleeing the pogroms in Europe. Later the scene shifts to Paris, where Hoffman creates another place and atmosphere, as experienced by Rachel and her defiant painter son.
Historical accuracy in this novel reveals profound prior research; it’s always a delight to learn something new from a novel. Hoffman provides an abundance of rich historical material, and insights into human behaviour – particularly the unfortunate patterns that are repeated down the generations.
Hoffman’s style is intensely evocative and picturesque, as seen through the eyes of an artist. Her vivid descriptions of the bright sunshine and colourful natural environment of the island beautifully conjure the essence of the Caribbean – the heat, brilliant colours, heavy perfumes and extraordinary sounds and textures. All the senses are fully engaged, drawing the reader fully into the atmosphere of the island.
Above all, it is a jolly good story, an unput-downable read about forbidden love, family bonds and friendship, and Rachel’s strength of will in overcoming the insuperable obstacles experienced by those of her faith, by society, and by her era and gender. An admirable character indeed.
I look forward to reading The Dovekeepers, and many more of Alice Hoffman’s 25 novels.