Alison Booth’s latest novel, The Painting, swiftly draws the reader into the story of a migrant striving to establish a new life in Australia while struggling to understand her family’s traumatic history.
Review by Rebecca Fernandes
Anika Molnar is a young woman from Hungary who in 1989 has settled in Sydney for work, study and the opportunity to escape the oppressive Socialist regime of her home country. She brings with her a painting – a striking portrait of a woman with auburn hair – that serves as a connection to her home and her beloved grandmother, Nyenye, who owns an extensive and secret private collection of artworks. When Anika takes her painting to be assessed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, her life instantly becomes more complicated. Not only does she discover that her painting is by a renowned French Impressionist, but two men come into her life, both potential romantic interests and both curious to learn the provenance of such a valuable work. Just as Anika is starting to question how such a painting came into her family, it is stolen from her bedroom.
You should open up a little, like Hungary is beginning to. You don’t need to be so suspicious any more.
The Painting is an absorbing mystery that reveals how much the past can have an impact on the present. Anika’s family still carries the trauma and losses of both German and Russian occupations of Hungary during the war, and the subsequent Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Life behind the Iron Curtain is filled with suspicion and mistrust; anyone could be an informant for the regime. Booth emphasises the contrast between the carefree Australian lifestyle, where neighbours regularly interact, observe and comment on each other’s daily lives and the secretive and fearful life that Anika has left behind. Anika struggles to trust the motivations of the men who have come into her life. There is the persistent journalist, Jonno, seemingly after a human-interest story on the experiences of new migrant and the art gallery curator, Daniel, who raises alarming concerns about the possible history of a painting that came into Anika’s family during the organised looting of Europe by the Nazis.
She felt sick at heart about what she might discover in Budapest. It could blow her family apart.
Booth centres her novel on Anika’s physical and emotional journey to confront her family’s past and learn the truth about the provenance of her beloved painting. It is about Anika building the courage to ask difficult questions of those she most loves. While the novel is focussed on the mystery of the painting’s provenance and disappearance, it is just as much about Anika coming to understand herself.
The Painting is a rewarding read. The plot is well-paced and while I thought I knew how it would end, I did end up surprised. The greatest impression this novel left on me was how inescapable the past remained in the lives of those who lived through the upheaval and chaos of the Second World War and the Cold-War period.
Note: The Painting will be published on July 15 2021. Author Alison Booth provided an advanced copy in return for an independent review.