This was an intriguing novel. There were times when I wanted to skip to the last pages to find out what was going to finally happen regarding the tortuous mystery of the painting that appears to lie at the heart of the story- and yet, does it? Since I never skip to the end of a novel, I was left wondering page after page till the end, yet a full revelation of the story didn’t seem to be what transpired for me. Many aspects remain conjectural; though I’m pretty sure a subsequent reading will provide me with a different outcome. Different interpretations of the plot I feel are quite possible. The time sequencing is an intricate and very thready web and it was only towards the end I felt myself grasping some of the inner strands. There are still bits of that stretchy web that I hope to make better connections with, and characters that I really want to understand in terms of their purpose in the novel. These may appear vague statements but I prefer not to write spoilers. I don’t generally find time to re-read novels but may have to with Painting by Numbers!
I rated it with 4 stars on Goodreads and amazon.
Enjoy an extract...
I rated it with 4 stars on Goodreads and amazon.
Enjoy an extract...
He deposited his coat with the cloakroom assistant and returned to the painting. The room was busy with wet bedraggled souls in from the rain trying to warm up. He scanned the floor for the girl but she wasn’t there. He sat down, adjusted his position and waited. Quite soon, the triangle reappeared and lines criss-crossed over the candleholder. He focused on the face reflected in the base. The hardened wax obscured a section of the image, but there was enough for Jacob to make out the faint pink and white of a cheek and the dark of an eye socket. This was clearly no optical illusion as he had previously considered. From his pocket he removed a small magnifying glass and held it up close to the detail. The image expanded inside the glass. He twisted his wrist and the image followed the movement of the lens as it turned. When he pulled back, the image blurred, and when he held it near, the face seemed to focus and define itself again. The pupil was small and blue, with a deep shadow under the lower lid. It was staring straight out of the painting, directly at him. This was impossible. The candleholder was on the floor. The angle of reflection was too flat. For anyone to get their head that straight they’d have to twist their neck sideways. It had to be something deliberately imposed upon the image, a calculated insertion.
He stopped abruptly, and turned. The girl was standing in the entrance, staring at him. He was aware of how odd he must have looked, hunched over, peering at the painting through a magnifying glass. He sat down and pretended to write something in his notebook. She approached and stood behind him. He could hear her breathing; the same click and wheeze as she inhaled. The hairs on his neck started to rise. She walked around, slowly, her body shifting sideways towards the bench. Now she was directly in front of him, blocking his view. She inched closer, to within two feet. He looked up. She was staring over his shoulder at the painting opposite. Closer still. He could smell the rain on her clothes. He attempted to speak but his mouth was dry. He tried again.
“Excuse me, miss, but I’m trying to...” He pointed, narrowly missing her leg. She looked down at him and smiled.
“I’m sorry, am I in your way?”
“Well, eh... yes, sorry.” She stepped to one side, but remained too close. “I’ve got a thing about this painting,” she said.
Jacob turned round.
“Oh, the Rubens. Yes, that one is beautiful.”
She sat down on the bench facing in the opposite direction. “Wouldn’t it be great...” she paused.
“Wouldn’t it be fine just to hang in a moment like that, to lock yourself into the frame?” He glanced at her and felt the longing return. He looked away.
“And no one would ever know,” she suggested, “never really know what you’d done before and what you were about to do?”
“Well I hadn’t—”
“You come in here a lot, don’t you? I see you,” she interrupted.
“Yes, I suppose I do,” Jacob smiled. “But I can’t remember seeing you in here before,” he lied.
“Oh, I’m here.” She wiped a droplet of water from her cheek. “I”m always here, too, except you are there and I am here.” She nodded at her own canvas and then turned to him. “Tell me, why do you like your picture so much?”
“It’s difficult to say.”
“I’ll tell you why I like mine, if you like.” She smiled.
“Yes well, if you want to, I mean, if you can.”
“Stillness,” she said, pausing as though to demonstrate the meaning. “I like it when nothing moves, when everything is suspended and held in one perfect, significant moment. Out here there’s too much movement, not enough certainty. The painting helps me deal with that. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
“Oh yes.” He shifted his weight onto his left side and twisted discreetly so that he could look at her more completely. Her hand dropped onto her knee, the palm upturned and open. The pulse twitched in her little finger, up and down in a slow relaxed rhythm. She breathed in and continued.
“I come in here and hope that one day it will happen. If I look at the picture long enough, if I focus my mind on the whole and on the detail, I’ll find it, you know, the stillness.” She looked at him. “Sorry, that might sound a bit weird.”
“No no, quite the contrary.”
“For me,” she continued, “it’s a bit like your glass on the edge of the table.”
Jacob turned back to his painting.
“We don’t know why it’s there or who put it there or what’s in it. We can only guess. And we also know that sooner or later someone or something will knock it over and it’ll smash into pieces on the floor. There’s a kind of inevitability about it. That’s its destiny. But inside that moment up there, we know the glass can never fall. It will always remain, locked inside its own space. And yet we continue to watch and wait. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. We don’t really know.” She turned her hand over and gripped her knee. ”Out here in the real world, the glass would probably fall and we would feel some initial relief, some deep felt satisfaction hearing it shatter. We would nod our heads and say, ‘Told you so. That’s fate.’ But our conceit always turns to feelings of failure, even resentment that the girl let it fall because we let it fall.” She paused and breathed in again. Jacob watched the whites of her knuckles pulse as she tightened her grip. “And in the end, all that is left is movement and the chaos of a shattered glass. Our belief in fate is just an excuse to avoid the sheer terror of chaos and our inability to control it.”
“But if you believe in fate,” Jacob said, “then surely there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
“Who said I believed in fate?”
“Well, I thought—”
“Oh no, that’s the beauty of it,” she interrupted. “You don’t have to believe in it. It just happens. Belief is irrelevant. We intervene and it’s fate, we do nothing and it’s fate, too. Fate makes us think that our options are limited while at the same time providing us with infinite possibility. You see, the stillness up there removes fate. It removes the chaos of possibility and all of those things we believe govern our lives.” She paused again and looked at her painting.
“But isn’t that the exciting thing about life?” Jacob said. “You never know where you are going or what will happen next? Surely free will is by definition chaotic. It gives us the freedom to choose our own pathways and our own infinite possibilities.”
“You think so? You think that you have free will?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That you can control chaos?”
“I’m a scientist, I suppose I hope that I will be able to explain it and understand it at least.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “Free will is just an illusion, a con trick, cooked up by fate.”
“What do you mean?”
“Fate dangles free will in front of our faces like a carrot that we pursue but never quite reach. It’s like when you go to the supermarket and you stare at the shelves stocked with endless varieties of breakfast cereals. We sweat over which one to choose, which one is the tastiest, the healthiest, the best. But in the end it doesn’t really matter because they all taste and look and cost the same. Yet every week we pace up and down the aisles searching for something different, something special to brighten up our mornings, change our lives, expand our healthy lifestyle options. You see the great possibility of fate leaves us restless, neurotic and exhausted, it lets us believe that we have the free will to choose. But what is the point of free will when there is no alternative? In the end our lives are desperately unfulfilled because of it.”
“But wasn’t it the same great possibility that drove these artists to create these beautiful paintings?”
“No, I think they were trying to retreat or escape from the relentless assault of chaos.” Her palm started rubbing on the fabric of her jeans. “Fate is a bully. It feeds on the fear of what might be. It is always in our blood and psyche, waiting, preparing and perpetually fulfilling its own meaningless obsession.”
She paused, her hand stopped moving. Then she smiled at Jacob. “And that’s why I like this painting. Because fate has been sealed inside the frame forever. The future is locked up and safe; dried out and stretched across the canvas. I find it comforting to know that there is at least one thing in life I can cling to as a complete certainty, a moment perfectly frozen and impervious to the abusive nature of fate.”
She wiped the tip of her nose with her finger. Jacob reached into his pocket and produced a packet of handkerchiefs.
“Thanks.” She blew hard and the sound reverberated around the room. She offered it back to him.
“Sorry I went on. Once I start I find it difficult to stop.”
She giggled and blew her nose again. “I suppose I’ve got a bit of a thing about fate.”
“I could have told you that.” They smiled and their eyes met for the first time. There was something very sad and deeply troubled about her. He wanted to wrap his arms around her shoulders and make her feel better about herself and the world.
“Would you like to go for a drink?” The words spluttered out of his mouth and were airborne before he could stop them.
She hesitated for a moment. “OK, I’m Jude, by the way.”
“Hi Jude, I’m Jacob. Good to meet you.” They shook hands awkwardly and stood up to go.