The Painting by Alison Booth

‘The painting stands for home. And you gave it to me.’

Anika Molnar flees from her home country of Hungary to Australia just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. She cannot take much with her, but her father insists that she take a painting: a small portrait of an auburn-haired woman in a blue dress. Her father tells her that the painting belongs to her Aunt Tabilla in Sydney. Anika moves in with her aunt and the painting, which her aunt gifts her, is hung on her bedroom wall.

Neither Tabilla nor Anika know much about the painting. They do not know who it represents or who painted it. So, when an opportunity arises to take it to Art Gallery of New South Wales to learn more about it including whether it is genuine or a forgery, Tabilla is keen for Anika to do so. The curators are interested in the painting but want to know more about its provenance. They think it might be a work by French Impressionist Antoine Rocheteau.

Anika takes the painting to a gallery owner, an old friend of Tabilla’s, for advice. His reaction is strange and sudden, and he questions ownership of the painting. Anika is perplexed and takes the painting home. Not long after, the painting is stolen from Anika’s bedroom wall. It seems, from the press coverage after the theft, that the painting is valuable.

Thus begins an intriguing journey. What is the story behind the painting? How could Anika’s family have afforded such a painting? Who took it from Annika’s wall, and why? Anika’s quest for answers will take her into her family history, into Hungary’s turbulent past. Anika has an opportunity to return to Hungary and she does so to try to find answers.

Anika’s quest will not be easy. Sydney and Budapest represent different worlds: many in Sydney are there having fled the past whereas those in Hungary are surrounded by it. The need to survive with an inherent mistrust in authority can result in uncomfortable choices and secrets.

I kept reading, wondering how this story would end, thinking about the choices people made and wondering what I would do in similar circumstances. And the ending? It was perfect.

This is Ms Booth’s sixth novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed the Jingera trilogy (‘Stillwater Creek’, ‘The Indigo Sky’ and ‘A Distant Land’) and will add ‘A Perfect Marriage’ and ‘The Philosopher’s Daughters’ to my reading list.

Note: My thanks to Ms Booth and RedDoor Press for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith