Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher

Provence, May 1889. The hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole is home to the mentally ill. An old monastery, it sits at the foot of Les Alpilles mountains amongst wheat fields, herbs and olive groves. For years, the fragile have come here and lived quietly, found rest behind the shutters and high, sun-baked walls.
Tales of the new arrival - his savagery, his paintings, his copper-red hair - are quick to find the warden's wife. From her small white cottage, Jeanne Trabuc watches him - how he sets his easel amongst the trees, the irises and the fields of wheat, and paints in the heat of the day.
Jeanne knows the rules; she knows not to approach the patients at Saint-Paul. But this man - paint-smelling, dirty, troubled and intense - is, she thinks, worth talking to. So ignoring her husband's wishes, the dangers and despite the word mad, Jeanne climbs over the hospital wall. She will find that the painter will change all their lives.
Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a beautiful novel about the repercussions of longing, of loneliness and of passion for life. But it's also about love - and how it alters over time.
review by Maryom

In May 1889, a new patient arrives at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole - a Dutch painter, with a history of self-harm and exhibitionist behaviour, he's considered by the doctors to be more disturbed and possibly more dangerous than the other inmates.
Having lived next door to the asylum for thirty years, Jeanne Trabuc, the warden's wife, is used to its ways, knows to stay away, to never approach the patients, but something about this new man, the mixed feeling of savagery and freedom which seems to surround him, compels her to go against her husband's rules - to approach and talk to him.

Although it's pretty easy to guess that the artist in question is Van Gogh, he's never actually named as such, but referred to as either Vincent or the Dutchman, as to French ears there's something rude about even his name. In his behaviour, the intensity he brings to both life and art, he shows that same ability to shock. The story, though, isn't really about him, but about the change he brings about in Jeanne. Even before she meets him, the stories about him have caused her to stop and think, to remember her childhood, and contrast the unconventional girl she was with the staid, respectable, middle-aged woman she's become. As she gets to know him, her feeling of no longer being happy with her lot increases. Her life is humdrum, repetitive, limited, predictable, particularly so now her children have grown and scattered. The Dutchman with his willingness to step outside the boundaries of what the world sees as 'normal', is like a breath of fresh air to Jeanne, representing freedom and change. Without moving from her little white cottage next to the asylum, Jeanne embarks on a journey of self-discovery that could wreck her marriage.

In some ways, this isn't a new story - the middle-aged woman trying to find herself is fairly well represented in fiction - but it is a mesmerising, beautifully told one, with an unusual mix of fiction and fact. 
I was hooked at the start by the author's feel for the landscape, the little details which make you believe you are there sharing the sights and sounds. As the story progressed, I became more involved with the characters, wondering how events and Jeanne's growing restlessness would be resolved, but the wonderful atmospheric scene-setting was still there, and I think that's the part that impressed me most. As Jeanne is re-awakened from her drab existence, it's as if she's re-discovering her senses - to see, hear, feel, taste, smell the things around her; things that before she'd ignored - the play of light on grasses, gnarled ancient olive trees, the hills beyond, and at night the stars which whirl above.

Beautifully imagined and written, I can see this will be a story I'll read again and again, but also, it's the first book by Susan Fletcher that I've read, and I'd very much like to read more!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Virago 
Genre - adult fiction, fictionalised biography.

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