This excellent read provides the backdrop to the life and work of Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro/Pissarro – one of the leading lights in the movement of French Impressionism. But the central character is not so much this dissident and incandescent artist as 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 her daughter Jestine, whose paternity is unclear, and clearly suspicious.
Set on the then Danish island of St.Thomas in the Caribbean, Hoffman’s story takes place in the early 1800’s amongst the refugee Jewish community who settled there after fleeing the pogroms in Europe. Later the scene shifts to Paris, where Hoffman paints another place and atmosphere with words, as seen through the eyes of Rachel and her defiant painter son.
Historical accuracy in this novel reveals profound prior research; it is 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, written 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 island’s life and atmosphere.
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 laid down by 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.