It's nice when you find a book that not only gets you thinking, but practically smacks you upside the head. Last night I finished "The God of Spring" by Australian author Arabella Edge -- I thought I'd read every art-themed novel out there, but somehow I missed this one when it came out last year in hardback. It was just released in paperback. The subject is Theodore Gericault's sublime painting "The Raft of the Medusa" (today in the Louvre), and if you know anything about that painting, you know Edge had a lot to work with.
The structure is fantastically done: after beginning with a dissatisfied, discontented Gericault (overwhelmed by a love affair), the novel proceeds in parallel stories between Gericault's creation of the painting and survivors' narratives of what happened to those shipwrecked on the raft. Just when you're waiting breathlessly for Gericault's next move or the survivors' next ordeal, Edge zooms you to the other of the parallel stories. Guaranteed to keep you reading. Gericault, and the reader, descend deeper and deeper into the Medusa tragedy, Gericault to the point of obsession. Warning: there are parts not for the squeamish, and if you already know the painting's story, you can guess what those are.
Edge's research is good, and her prose skillfully avoids melodrama or fussy-ness. I teach "The Raft of the Medusa" every year in survey (we just did it, in fact), I've stood in front of that painting any number of times in the Louvre, and yet when I finished the novel, I felt I had gotten to know the painting and the artist in a whole new way. This book deserves attention and it deserves to be read!