I don’t think this is a book you would pick out of a line-up as something you had seen before, as the name of the author doesn’t seem especially memorable. But this author has been on my radar for a while, as she wrote ‘Witch Light‘, a book published in 2011 and one which I often recommend to other people. I read it before I started this blog, but it is one of those rare reads which lingers in the imagination, scenes sometimes come back to me. (Note to self – read ‘Witch Light‘ again and review it here!)
‘Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew‘ is a fictionalised account of the time the troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh spent at the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy in 1889/90. He admitted himself after a period of anguished mental illness which culminated in the artist cutting off his own ear. Local townspeople petitioned for him to be removed as they believed him to be insane.
The novel is written from the viewpoint of Jeanne, the wife of the warden at Saint-Paul. With her adult sons now grown and left home, Jeanne feels increasingly isolated from her husband. Clearly concerned for her safety, Charles forbids Jeanne to associate with the new patient. But she is drawn to the red-headed artist, whom she sees painting in the grounds of the asylum. At first Vincent is dismissive of her, but he gradually begins to tolerate her presence as he paints.
Jeanne’s defiance of her husband precipitates a change in their marriage, and Jeanne, weary and unfilled, thinks often of her friend Laure who walked away from an unhappy union. The tenderness with which Charles and Jeanne seek to re-define their ways of being together, is beautifully portrayed, without sentimentality.
This novel breathed new life into Van Gogh’s paintings for me; he painted many works whilst at Saint-Paul, probably most famously ‘The Starry Night‘, but others detailed the asylum buildings, wildlife and people. Many of them, and especially the colours chosen by the painter, are woven into the text of the novel. I realised that Fletcher’s writing is the same as Vincent’s work – textured, reflective and meaningful. Look out for this and her other work – my edition of ‘Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew’ has sunflowers on the cover!