Still life with aloes and a phoenix in the Karoo

THE ABILITY TO cast a beautiful yarn in plain language is a very special skill. It’s about cutting the fat that words can spew if they’re not restrained, as it is about the luxury of being able to form characters with your pen and insights, impeccably. Like writers of the ilk of George Orwell, South African-born writer, Barbara Mutch crafts her material with immense detail and boldness of structural line. Her keenly anticipated third novel, The Fire Portrait, simply sizzles.

With bold and oft wild pen strokes, this tale twists and bends back on itself as it reflects on childhood sharpness and ghosts, on passion and the realisation of dreams. It’s about loss and friendship, the ability to talk to plants and see each individual lobe of a succulent for its potency, as it is about the diverse beauties of Cape Town and the Karoo and the rising monstrosities of wars and conflict both within and outside of Africa. Above all, it is about the circularity of life, and about how a landscape weathers the great tides and turns of the people who inhabit it.

Like her previous novels, The Housemaid’s Daughter (2010) and The Girl from Simon’s Bay (2017), Mutch tells a period story in The Fire Portrait which has the rich background of life in the United Kingdom and South Africa from the 1920s. It’s a tale that evokes Colm Toibin’s astonishingly fine novel Brooklyn in its extrapolation of its central character and how she interacts with what the world presents. On this and that side of the ocean.

Woven around important moral and philosophical nubs about secrets and rising to difficult challenges, the novel introduces you to Frances McDonald, a woman born in the early 20th century. Complete with her ‘Titian’ hair and her green eyes with flecks of ginger, she lives through the complexities of colonialism and the late 1920s Crash and subsequent Depression, with her paintbrush in hand, and the ability to hold onto a dream in her heart, in spite of what the universe tosses her way.

And, like a hot knife through butter, the prose, largely in the first person, flows and melts before your eyes, offering, in its stead, an intensity of visual ether cast by the story itself, its landscapes and its characters. Mutch writes in both the past tense and breaks rules as she creates emphatic statements, with the present tense. The writing shimmers off the page. Her sentences are short and tight, but the brushstrokes with which she tells her story are luxuriously wide and strong. Evoking in some ways, the life of German painter Adolf Jentsch and his love affair with a Namibian landscape that flew in the face of conventional beauty, while it projects an understanding of gallery values from Africa around the mid twentieth century, the novel is a fantasy, but a palpable one that gives the kind of courage you may have discovered in Jojo Moyes’s 2019 novel The Giver of Stars.

Aside from a cover that is anachronistic in terms of the period in which the novel is set, and feels far too bland for the drama enwrapped in this story, The Fire Portrait scintillates with the unexpected. It will bring you to tears on several occasions, as you will hold tight to the flow of chapters, not wanting to put this book down until the story reaches its own satisfying closure.

It’s the type of tale that may be exactly what you need to read right now: The Fire Portrait hits all the buttons about dreams of creative success in a world broken by catastrophe, spite and malice.

  • The Fire Portrait by Barbara Mutch is published by Allison and Busby, London (2021).
  • Barbara Mutch is on a South African book tour, publicising The Fire Portrait until the end of February 2022. She will be speaking on 18 February on Cape Talk; on 19 February, there will be an event for the book at Wordsworth Books, Long Beach Mall; and on 23 February, there will be an interview and book signing at Exclusive Books, Cavendish Square.

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