Reading this book was like crawling into a painting and having the colours wash over you as you sleep. It was positively dreamy. Jodi Piccoult’s comment on the book’s cover is: “Hoffman reminds us with every sentence that words have the power to transport us to alternate worlds” and this is exactly what this book did.
I knew nothing about the book before I picked it up. I knew only that I was a Hoffman fan, despite not having read ‘The Dovekeepers’ – her books had not yet disappointed me, each of them so different, tiny worlds, unique and perfect. I had no background to the text and I read it like a piece of fiction.
It was only toward the end when I came to the ‘Afterword’ that it became apparent that this book was faction, based on the life of the famous artist, Camille Pizzarro. Rather than feel disappointed with this realisation, as I was with Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Lacuna’, this knowledge simply opened up another world that I felt motivated to explore. It made the book more magical.
There is so much to love about this book. The prose is divine; rich and layered, magnificent descriptions of places and colours and hues – “the air was spicy with the scent of the bay trees as we walked together…” The poetic majesty of Hoffman’s writing is established early on in this tome:
“Heat was the core of our lives, a shape-shifter that never was too far from the door. It made me want to step out of my clothes and dive into another life, one where there were linden trees and green lawns, where women wore black silk dresses and crinolenes that rustled when they walked, a country where the moon rose like a silver disc into a cold, clear sky.”
The setting is intriguing – a small Jewish community in the Virgin Islands with the backdrop of the American Civil War and slavery. The role of religion in manufacturing ties amongst this community is fascinating and I found it intriguing to note the intersection between African and French influences in this context.
There is also love and complex social restrictions and a great gender divide and books and libraries – “I disappeared into that cool, shuttered room whenever I could”. The burden of a nation’s history and narrative is buried in every character’s actions:
“We were meant to be mice, to go unnoticed so that we would not bring hatred upon our people, who had been so ill-treated in every nation. But I was not a mouse. In the field where I walked, I was much more interested in the actions of hawks.”
Even more, this is a book about rebellion – “I rarely did as I was told” – and passion and commitment. It is a book about connections between people and places and the tenacity that it takes for individuals to know what they want and to fight for that. And it is a book about beauty, stark natural magnificence that cannot be contained in Hoffman’s words, nor in Pizzarro’s paintings.
But mostly, this is a book about being human and what that means. About loving and losing and still loving. It is about giving and forgiving and never forgetting. It is a book that reminds us all about why we love to read.