Alison Booth's The Painting deftly explores the migration experience in her art-theft mystery

Author Alison Booth enjoys delving into human relationships. Picture: Penny Bradfield
Author Alison Booth enjoys delving into human relationships. Picture: Penny Bradfield
  • The Painting, by Alison Booth. Red Door, $24.99.

It's a well-established fact that during the Holocaust the Nazis profited from looting the homes of Jewish families. Many valuable items disappeared during this time and were never seen again. This included paintings and sculptures by famous artists, manuscripts, artefacts and gold.

Alison Booth's new novel, The Painting, is a story about a mysterious artwork from this era. Set in the late 1980s, the narrative follows the journey of Anika Molnar, a young woman of Hungarian descent whose parents managed to hurry her out of Hungary before the borders closed at the start of the Cold War. They packed her off with a suitcase and a small painting from her grandmother's secret collection, and sent her to live with her aunt Tabilla who settled in Sydney at the end of WWII after her husband was killed.

Anika is a reserved young woman studying architecture and working hard to support herself through her studies. One of her greatest pleasures is the painting she brought with her from Hungary, featuring a woman with auburn hair and pale skin wearing a cobalt blue dress. Anika is very attached to the painting as it "was a symbol of the place Anika still thought of as home, a place whose absence hurt, sometimes viscerally".

However, when her job becomes tenuous, she is forced to consider selling the painting to finance her studies. That's when things become interesting. When Anika takes the painting to be assessed, she discovers that its provenance is unclear, and that her family may be covering secrets about its origins. Then the painting is stolen from her room. Anika embarks on a search for the truth about the painting, which carries her to various Sydney art establishments and ultimately back to Hungary as the Cold War ends.

Although the narrative encapsulates Anika's personal exploration of the disappearance of the artwork, it is also a portrayal of the migrant experience in Australia. Booth's cultural awareness of the difficulties for migrants feels convincing, especially the sense of loss and dislocation, and the need to separate from a traumatic past and create a new future.

These themes have be probed by other recent works, such as There was Still Love by Favel Parrett, and The Sea & Us by Catherine de Saint Phalle, among others. However, each work portrays different stories, and all have important value to add to our understanding of life for migrants in Australia.

What Booth does so well in The Painting is threading the mystery of the stolen painting through her narrative while maintaining pace and tension. Booth is an elegant writer who excels at inhabiting the intellectual headspace of her characters. While much of the action in The Painting takes place within Anika's head, the narrative never feels sluggish. Booth raises as many questions as she answers, and her artistry exists in leading the reader through Anika's thought processes as she tries to work out who may have stolen the painting and why. The mystery lies within Anika's family and Hungary's war-torn past.

Booth is good at elucidating detail. She uses the contrast between late 1980s Sydney and Hungary to illustrate the oppression of Anika's family back home. In the second half of the novel, Anika returns to Hungary, giving insight into her family's past: their interactions and connections; the fallout of the wars; the secretive behaviour of people controlled for too long by fear of the authorities.

This all adds to our understanding of what Anika's family has suffered, and serves to arouse doubt and suspicion around the origin of Anika's missing painting.

Booth spent more than two decades living in the UK, and this shows in her writing. Her work feels as though it is written by an English author. The tone is polite, conversational and intimate. And while it is never frivolous, there's a lightness about the writing that many authors strive for.

Booth obviously enjoys delving into human relationships. Anika's aunt Tabilla is particularly enigmatic, as is her grandmother Nyenye in Hungary. Wars damage people, and while some may escape to other lands and start new lives, they never feel like they really belong, and their homeland always exists as a painful absence. Booth illustrates this clearly.

The Painting works well as a cosy mystery. Booth cleverly lays down a maze of possibilities as to who might have stolen the painting. A journalist and several men within the art world are suspects with justifiable motives. Two of them provide potential love interests for Anika. But are they interested in Anika or her painting?

Laced with history, The Painting is an easy and entertaining read with a lot of heart and hope, and a clever twist and resolution.

  • Karen Viggers writes contemporary fiction set in wild Australian landscapes. Her latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.
This story An affecting art-theft mystery first appeared on The Canberra Times.