The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford
The best thing about being my own master when it comes to choosing what I want to read is that when I read a book I really want to talk about I can without feeling like I have to put aside any other obligations, and I really want to talk about The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque.
Piero Piambo, a portrait artist in New York in 1893, is currently in fashion and as a result also in high demand. Despite the financial security it affords him, he begins to wonder if he has not lost his way in regards to his art, and when he receives a mysterious commission from the blind Watkins, servant of Mrs Charbuque, he accepts it with the absurd condition that he must paint her portrait without ever seeing her. The one concession that she does make is that Piero can visit for an hour Monday through Friday and ask her any questions he wants as long as they do not pertain to her appearance.
As she begins to tell her story the story transcends the normal to become fantastical. While she tells Piero of her childhood preserving snowflakes to divine the future with her father, the death of her mother, and her own years of fame as the sought after fortune teller the Sibyl, bodies begin to appear on the streets of New York weeping blood. Is it a plague brought into the city from abroad as the police suspect or something darker? And what of the supposedly late Mr Charbuque, who appears to threaten Piero to abandon the commission or meet a violent end? The more Mrs Charbuque tells Piero about herself, the more he begins to suspect that she is an unreliable narrator when it comes to her own life.
While Piero is initially interested in the job because it will allow him to take time off from portraits to pursue purer artistic visions, at the urging of his friend and fellow artist Shenz he attempts to try and rise to Mrs Charbuque’s challenge of drawing her accurately in order to attain three times the large amount he has already been promised. The more that Piero works at solving the mystery, the more obsessed he becomes both with Mrs Charbuque and with portraying her accurately, and it begins to cost him everything that he holds dear. It soon becomes apparent that the challenge will either reveal true genius as an artist or destroy him.
Jeffrey Ford takes a wonderful premise and executes it masterfully, pulling the reader deeper into the novel with each new breadcrumb of information. I couldn’t put the book down, and I read it all in a day as I had to know the answers to the mysteries that make up the novel. In typical Ford fashion he saves the biggest twist for the denouement and once again I was unable to see it coming. Despite the intricate plot the novel is essentially very human, as Piero’s obsession reveals all his flaws, as well as the thing he shares with many other artists, his god complex. I believe it is no coincidence that he finds himself at a church at the end of the novel.
I never have any reservations about recommending Ford’s work to people, he is a fantastic writer and always a joy to read. Highly recommended, particularly to those interested in art like myself, or people who have a fondness for America during the Victorian age.
FanLit thanks Paul Charles Smith from Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream for contributing this guest review. Paul Smith is a postgraduate student at the University of Central Lancashire with a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy, studying part time for an MPhil, exploring The Ethics of Authenticity, focusing on evaluating the narrative as model for presenting ethics. In his spare time he loves to read, and write short stories, as well as reviews and essays for his blog. He owes his love of books to his mother, who would take him to the library when she went shopping every Saturday afternoon. Paul enjoys a wide range of reading material, and some of his favourite authors include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Moorcock, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Cisco, Gene Wolfe, and Zoran Živković.