A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Set in 1936 in Belgium and Ceylon, Smoke Portrait traces the development of an unlikely friendship between a young Belgian teenager, Marten Kuypers, and Glen Phayre, a young English woman in her twenties. Glen has left England to live with her aunt, who runs a tea plantation in Ceylon and fills her days with good works, among them the task of writing letters to a Belgian prisoner. But the letters go astray, and are received instead by Marten, eager to discover the wide world outside his small village, and desperately missing his older brother Krelis, who has vanished and is presumed dead. Marten decides to reply to Glen in the guise of the grown-up prisoner she is expecting to hear from, and as their correspondence evolves, they both assume identities that, while false in many respects, remain true to their own selves in other ways. Gradually they come to depend on each other, and their pen friendship proves to be crucial when events in their real lives take on a darker, more threatening significance in the shadow of the impending world war.
Anne: Trilby Kent is a former Book Fox but I have to admit it did surprise me when Alma Books sent me a review copy of Smoke Portrait as I’m not a hugely keen reader of historical literary fiction, but it’s always good to keep up with what my fellow foxes are doing so I went to it with much enthusiasm.
Lisa: Smoke Portrait has been on my radar for a long time and I remember reading early extracts on a writers’ website several years ago. I was intrigued by Smoke Portrait back then, so I was delighted to hear that the book had been sold to Alma Books and I was naturally very keen to see if the novel had lived up to is early promise.
Anne: I did find that this is a novel, at least for me, that takes a while to get going. I felt more engaged with Marten, the teenager, from the start, but rather distanced from Glen and her concerns, although I did like her interaction with her father. I wish they’d been more of that, but of course she goes to Ceylon so it’s impossible.
Lisa: I do agree that the novel was initially slower paced. I think I spent something like two months reading the first hundred pages of the book, and about a week reading the rest of it. I am, these days, however, a VERY slow reader with the attention span of a gnat so perhaps that explains some of the delay.
I too enjoyed Glen’s interaction with her father, but I did initially find that Glen’s concerns, as you put it, were rather alienating and I found her almost unbearably upper crust and snobby. Marten on the other hand was a lonesome little soul that I immediately liked.
Anne: Ah, it must simply be my inner snob coming out, Lisa … Who knew! Anyway, the language and description of place are both beautifully conveyed, but in terms of plot and a deeper engagement with character it was only after the first 100 pages or so that I really felt the novel got into its stride. From then on, the tension and difficulties of each character’s situation came to the fore, and I found I had to keep on reading.
Lisa: The descriptions are stunning. It is perhaps corny to say it, but reading the Ceylon parts of the book put me in mind of being a kid poring over my ancient – though mesmerising and exotic – bird book. Reading Smoke Portrait did leave me feeling a similar kind of wonder and enchantment.
Anne: I agreed. Also, as I was reading, there were many echoes for me of EM Forster’s A Passage to India, especially in terms of the English abroad and the deep sense of being an outsider in a foreign land. However, the energy of Marten and Glen kept it fresh and different.
Lisa: I haven’t read A Passage to India, so I can’t comment on that, but for sheer ambition, I don’t think many other debut novels come close [although strictly speaking this isn’t a debut as Trilby has already had a novel for children published. A review of Medina Hill can be found here .].
Anne: You may well be right. But ambition apart, I must also raise the issue of the letters. I have to say I didn’t warm to these and tended to skip over the content, as I felt that the real life of the two main characters lay beyond what they wrote to each other. However, as a plot device, it’s vital and I did enjoy the way the discovery unfolds in the end.
Lisa: I must disagree on that point. I don’t always enjoy epistolary novels, but I really liked the letters in Smoke Portrait, showing as they did the disconnect between the inner life of a person and the presentation of that life to others.
Anne: We will have to agree to disagree, maybe! Turning to another factor, minor characters are on the whole well done here, though I felt the aunt was more shadowy than she ought to have been. Special mention must go to the adorable Emil Royce. I loved him, and the poignant scene between him and Glen at the end is top-notch. I was on tenterhooks. I was also deeply furious with how the schoolteacher Ganan treats Glen and was growling at the pages as I read them at that point. If I’d been there with Glen, I think a swift right hook would have made the wretched man see sense, but then again I am from Essex so we have no finesse in these matters …
Lisa: I enjoyed Glen’s interactions with the servants and her students. Emil Royce was an interesting fellow but I must confess that I didn’t much believe in the schoolteacher Ganan. There was something about his portrayal which just didn’t ring true for me, and the love story felt a little too insubstantial and fleeting.
Anne: I’m just a romantic marshmallow at heart, you know … However, the sections where Marten becomes part of an anti-Jewish group of young men are very powerfully portrayed and must merit special mention. That was superb writing, and the struggle for Marten who is pulled in different directions by his old friends and his new ones is very moving indeed. I can well see how that could happen. But I honestly couldn’t read the section with the cat (Jackie, be warned …)
Lisa: As soon as I caught wind of the cat plot, I started reading the book at arm’s length and with one eye shut (well, almost). Poor little albino cat. The few pages that I skimmed confirmed that the poor thing came to a bad end, and that was enough for me. I just could not read any descriptions of this fictional cat’s torture and murder. Yes, I have turned into a wimp. Other readers would no doubt fare better with the cat scene.
Anne: Indeed. We must pass swiftly on, keeping a close grip on our nine lives. I loved the epilogue. It took me by surprise on many levels and was also a very good rounding-off of events. So, for me, while this novel took a while to hit its stride, it becomes in the end a very powerful, gripping and human read.
Lisa: The epilogue was genius. I had not seen that coming at all and I loved the light that it shed on the rest of the book. I think it was whilst reading the epilogue that I decided that Smoke Portrait was a seriously classy read. We can both recommend it.
Smoke Portrait, Alma Books 2011, ISBN: 978 1 84688 129 9
[Anne and Lisa always enjoy chatting about books, but agree it’s slightly less insane when there’s actually someone else there to listen to their ramblings.]