Sunday , February 25 2024
Variety is both strength and weakness of "The Memory Painter."

Book Review: ‘The Memory Painter’ by Gwendolyn Womack

In a Library Journal interview, Gwendolyn Womack distills her debut novel The Memory Painter into one quick line: “I say it’s a supernatural historical thriller about a group of neuroscientists who unlock the secret to reincarnation. Every other attempt turns into a long-winded explanation!”

If that’s good enough for her, no argument here. Any attempt to describe the content of this multi-level journey through time and space more specifically is likely to spoil too much of the book’s many surprises without giving a truly adequate idea of the content.

The book’s main characters (young, up-and-coming painter Bryan Pierce and lovely scientist Lindsey Conrad) reside in contemporary Boston while they dream (or relive) previous lives: Egypt in 10,000 BC, on a Viking ship in the North Atlantic in 986, Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century, and Boston in 1982. But that isn’t the half of it. Turns out they may have also been the Russian poet Pushkin and his wife, a great Italian violin maker and his wife, an Indian Yogi and his disciple, and a raft of others over the eons.

The variety is both the book’s strength and, paradoxically, it’s weakness. If you don’t care for the Japan story thread, there is the Russian excursion. If you can’t buy into the Yogi’s years of meditation, there is always, dare I mention, the woman burned at the stake. Nothing is dealt with in any great depth or at any great length, so if something doesn’t work, the reader doesn’t have to suffer very long. On the other hand, if one or two of the “dreams” or reincarnations gets really interesting, it’s gone before the reader has a chance to savor it. And, at least for this reader, not all the reincarnations are equal.

The real key to this kind of “supernatural thriller” is the author’s ability to get the reader to buy into the fantastic events. To create what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Without that sort of verisimilitude, a novel like this loses some of its magic. And I must say, especially at the beginning the author doesn’t always manage the job as effectively as she might. Things happen too quickly; she doesn’t lay the foundation necessary to ground the novel. The further one gets into the novel, assuming indeed one gets further, and one develops an interest in the characters and their relationships, the more likely one is to make that willing suspension. Womack needs to get us to that point a lot earlier in the novel.

Interestingly, the book’s ending suggests a series in the making. So if you like this there may well be more to come.

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