Painter Leo Millar arrives on the modestly inhabited island of La Mouche, near Normandy, in a deep fog, literal and metaphorical. It is 1966, the U.S. is bombing Hanoi and de Gaulle is planning a trip to the U.S.S.R. This is the far backdrop of politics in Lewis DeSoto’s new novel, The Restoration Artist; the nearer manifests in Leo’s solitude. He is alone because, just over a year, or possibly two years, ago (it isn’t clear), his wife Claudine and 10-year-old son Piero were killed in a terrorist attack on Cyprus: “Another small war in another small place.”
But, as he takes up the rhythms of life in this admittedly idyllic-sounding haven – mentoring Tobias, a mute orphan, learning the secret of a mysterious woman (a composer, it turns out), befriending the local people and slowly, slowly, returning to painting – Leo’s heart begins to thaw and … and I can’t possibly finish this sentence without sounding like a soap opera blurb writer, because unfortunately, a soap opera is what The Restoration Artist is.
What makes it one is not the plot (there’s nothing new under the sun and anyway, Madame Bovary? For that matter, Mad Men?). It’s the writing, which is just bad. How you convey the hell of frozen emotion that is grief or, worse, despair, I don’t know, but clunky sentences along the lines of “Happiness still existed in the world. It had just lost a place in my heart” are not, I suspect, it. Portentous announcements proliferate (“There was no time but now, there was no place but here. There was no life but my own”) and symbols run rampant, so heavily freighted that the entire structure of the novel threatens to collapse beneath their momentousness.
DeSoto, a native South African who came to Canada as a teenager, has, in addition to two other novels, written the Penguin Lives biography of Emily Carr. He is also a painter. Perhaps not suprisingly then, The Restoration Artist comes alive – that is to say, is believable and immediate, not kept at a remove by the cliché of the writing – when Leo paints.
There, as we see him messing about with his varnish and his glue, his powdered calcium carbonate and his titanium white, weighing, judging, determining his colours, experiencing his art – there the novel rings absolutely true, and we give over to make-believe with pleasure. But such moments are infrequent, and only throw into relief how utterly uninvolved we are in the rest of the story.
That DeSoto had the best of intentions and a sound inspiration for writing this book I know, because he outlines both in a preface. That his own experience mirrors Leo’s is clear (minus, I assume, the fatal bomb blast), right down to the magical island – “part A Midsummer Night’s Dream, part The Tempest” – he has co-opted for his setting. I wonder why, then, he didn’t opt for memoir. I can’t help but wish he had.
Toronto writer and editor Kathleen Byrne frequently reviews for Globe Books.