by Susan Hill (Profile Books, 2007)
When I heard that this novella was loosely inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, possibly my favourite book of all time, I was eager to give it a try! It's my first Susan Hill, but knowing her reputation for chilling writing I reckoned I'd be in safe hands. Happily, I wasn't disappointed, and found The Man in the Picture a thoroughly absorbing little read.
It is really a story within a story within a story. The first narrator is Oliver, a Cambridge alumnus visiting his old professor Theo in his college digs. One cold night, sitting by a roaring fire, whisky in hand, Theo tells Oliver how he came to own one of the art works in his collection, a macabre painting depicting a crowded Venetian carnival scene. Within his story, in turn, is the bizarre experience of the Countess who owned the painting before him. Between these three Hill conjures a tale of menace and vengeance, peeking into the sinister corners of Venice and the history of a terrifying picture with a life of its own, the entire novella suffused with the theatricality of the Carnivale and the scent of oil paint.
This is a quick read, but a wonderfully atmospheric one that I think pays an interesting kind of homage to The Picture of Dorian Gray without trampling all over it. Hill handles her Russian doll trio of narrators beautifully, so that each is distinct from the others and I never got confused - which could easily have happened given that everything hinges on one work of art. I wouldn't say it is a surprising novella, because I could see where it was all leading, but it was still delicious to just sink into it for a day and immerse myself in the spooky story and the darker side of the masked celebrations whirling through the streets of Venice. Recommended!
- "Someone must just have returned. In a couple of weeks term would have begun and then lights would be on all round - undergraduates do not turn in early. I stood for a moment looking round, remembering the good years I had spent within these walls, the conversations late into the night, the japes, the hours spent sweating over an essay... I would never want to be like Theo, spending all my years here, however comfortable the college life might be, but I had a pang on longing for the freedoms and the friendships."
- "I have read that everyone who visits Venice falls in love with that city, that Venice puts everyone under her spell. Perhaps I was never going to be happy there, because of the painting and of what I had seen, but I was taken aback by how much I disliked it from the moment we arrived. I marvelled at the buildings, the canals, and the lagoon astonished me. And yet I hated it. I feared it. It seemed to be a city of corruption and excess, an artificial place, full of darkness and foul odours. I looked over my shoulder. I saw everything as sinister and threatening."
- "I knew only too well the fierce power of jealousy which fuels a passion to be avenged. It does not happen very often but when it does and a person has their love rejected and all their future hopes betrayed for another, rage, pride and jealousy are terrible forces and can do immeasurable harm."