Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Blue Horse by Philip Miller, reviewed by Ali Bacon

For me the city of Edinburgh and the intrigues of the art world always make fascinating reading and I wasn’t disappointed in this novel which happens to combine the two. But The Blue Horse isn’t just a book about art. The excellent opening sets the tone. George Newhouse loved his wife and his wife was dead, because it is George’s journey through bereavement which is the real story and his shifting mindscape as much as the cityscape of Edinburgh which dominates the book.

At the beginning, George has a new job as curator of Flemish art in the fictional ‘public gallery’ which I immediately recognized as The Dean Gallery but he is distracted from work by grief, intertwined with his personal quest to trace a painting by a minor artist mentioned by Rembrandt which contrary to expert opinion he believes exists (this is The Blue Horse).
George is already living on the edge and so it doesn’t take much to tip him over when his work situation disintegrates (the gallery is to lose most of its collection) and his mentor dies unexpectedly. He also fails to form new relationships with the women who excite his interest and his old friend, the boisterous Dutchman Rudi, is focussed on his own projects.

George has the added pressure of being in charge of the gallery’s installation by a renegade contemporary artist at the Venice Biennale. And after more evidence about the Blue Horse and George’s continuing failure to address his own grief, Venice is where everything comes together – or falls apart – in a bravura climax.

I admit I wasn’t always sure what was going on in this book but then neither was George. What mattered was that all of the art background rang absolutely true (the author is an art correspondent) and there was always a question that needed answering. Although they are miles apart in many ways it’s hard not to think of Donna Tart’s Goldfinch in the way that the painting exerts its influence all the way through the book.

This is a literary novel which I think deserves a wide audience. The Kindle edition (a very reasonable £2.99) has one or two glaring typos and has been criticised by reviewers for this, but they weren't enough to distract me.
Also in paperback from Amazon or via Freight Books.

As a footnote, here's the Dean Gallery now part of the National Galleries of Scotland (and renamed 'Modern 2'). It does have a very particular character which seems to attract fiction writers. I used it in my novel A Kettle of Fish and in The Lewis Man by Peter May, it appears in its original incarnation as an orphanage.

(Photo courtesy of The Edinburgh Blog on Flickr: creative commons license)

Ali Bacon was born in Fife and lives near Bristol. She writes novels and short stories and blogs for Authors Electric on the 22nd of each month.

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