Review

The Painting

by Nina Schuyler



Hayashi has feared fire ever since fire took the lives of his
family and permanently disfigured his feet. A talented potter who
was raised by Buddhist monks, he is a part of the new Japanese
government, even though his heart isn't completely into it. He
keeps the now-illegal Buddhist shrine on his property open, even
though someone set fire to his teahouse, possibly as a warning.
Similarly, he can't make out what's going on in the mind of his
beautiful young wife, Ayoshi.

Ayoshi is dreamy, sometimes spending hours upon hours painting
things she rarely lets him see. She feels a great distance between
herself and the man the matchmaker married her to. Though she feels
bad about it, she resents his deformity, the fact that she has to
massage his feet while soaking them in ice water to calm their
pain. She cannot find space for him in her heart --- it is too full
with the desire to paint the world she sees, especially the
memories of her beautiful lover, who she misses deeply. When she
paints the first painting, the passion of her muse pours perfectly
out into the paper, capturing a moment of lust and profound love
and joy. She cannot let her husband see this work, so she wraps it
around one of the pots he has sold and is sending to France.

In France, Jorgen is the one who discovers the painting. Once a
solider hired from his homeland of Denmark to fight in the place of
a rich Frenchman, the loss of his leg has forced him to leave the
army he feels so much at home in. He happened to be billeted in the
hospital next to a young man whose sister, Natalia, visited
constantly, and, in return for a small act of kindness on Jorgen's
part, she has convinced her other brother to hire him to sort and
unpack things in his warehouse. She also convinces him to help her
learn how to shoot and be a real solider, for Natalia's one desire
is to be a truly good person, a hero, someone who, along with the
other women who are training to become soldiers, fights for her
homeland.

The painting is, in many ways, the pivotal event of the story. It
is love and desire melted and pressed to paper, a form of release
for a trapped young woman, a tool for healing for a similarly
trapped man. Every time he looks at the painting, Jorgen sees
something new; it is not that the painting is magic (though beauty
and the capturing of a perfect moment has a magic all its own), but
that Jorgen changes. As he transforms, falling in love with the
almost saintly Natalia, he becomes a better person and is able to
see different things. Natalia also changes as she faces loss and
sees the realities of war. The way she and her fellow female
soldiers are treated isn't what she expected, but strangely enough,
she still finds a sort of liberation. Ayoshi and Hayashi also
change; Hayashi's struggles to understand and try to find a common
place with his wife are heartbreaking, as are Ayoshi's attempts to
find herself.

THE PAINTING is extremely well written. Nina Schuyler uses imagery
to create subtle connections in the text. For instance, Hayashi,
Ayoshi and a visitor see an owl. What each sees defines them
perfectly. Hayashi sees, poetically, a slice of moonlight. Sato,
who travels the world, sees an adventurer. Ayoshi says that none of
them are right --- that the owl (she) is lost.

Schuyler also captures the heart of a city under siege. The
Prussians are closing in on Paris, and the author brings us a
picture of a place filled both with desperation and optimism,
stripped of its facade. Pierre, the man who Jorgen works for, is
only happy when he's squeezing the last penny from his clients,
Jorgen himself runs minor cons to make money, and we see the
realities --- the insides of the hospitals, the funerals, the
doubts and the desperation that everyone feels as they prepare to
defend their homes against a vastly impressive force.

Contrasting love against hopelessness --- a floundering marriage, a
war --- THE PAINTING shows how love can heal and liberate the
soul.

Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer on January 14, 2011

The Painting
by Nina Schuyler

  • Publication Date: October 22, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1565124413
  • ISBN-13: 9781565124417