I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson very much. It’s a dual time period novel moving between the present day and the Second World War, a format I think that can be hard to do successfully. In this book, Camilla Macpherson’s first published novel, I think it is successful as I was equally keen to find out what happened next in both periods.
Pictures at an Exhibition is structured around Daisy’s letters to her cousin Elizabeth telling her about the paintings on display at London’s National Gallery during the war years – one a month. In the present day Claire reads the letters, left to her husband Rob, by his grandmother, Elizabeth. They are not just about the paintings but also about Daisy’s life and the man she meets and loves. Claire meanwhile, is struggling to recover from a tragedy that threatens to overwhelm her and wreck her marriage. She decides to read the letters, one a month, and visit the National Gallery to see the paintings and compare them with Daisy’s descriptions.
I found the characters thoroughly convincing, the settings and the time periods contrasting vividly and loved all the details about the paintings. I also liked the way the characters developed throughout the book. For example, at the beginning of the book, which I found so devastatingly sad, Claire is full of anger and grief, affecting her relationship with Rob:
It was the grief speaking. It could do strange things grief. She had not known that until now. She had never had to know. It had brought with it this desperate, physical need to blame someone, someone who would be right there when she had to lash out – Rob. The only person who was always there. (page 106)
She becomes obsessed with the letters, the paintings and with Daisy’s life. It’s a remarkable portrayal of a woman in crisis and how she managed to find herself again. Daisy’s story is just as convincing describing life in London during the Blitz and along with Claire I really wanted to know more about her and what happened to her.
I think it was the art that drew me to this book in the first place and I found those parts of the book absolutely fascinating. The National Gallery did display one painting a month after most of them had been transported away from London and the bombs for safe keeping. You can see the paintings described by scanning the QR codes at the beginning of each chapter and also see them on Camilla Macpherson’s website, and of course on the National Gallery’s site too. I knew of most of them before, but not all of them and as I was reading I printed copies to see what Daisy and Claire saw.
But by the end of the book it was the characters and the story that had captivated me too. It’s about life and death, love and loss, grief and relationships and I found it compelling reading – when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it and keen to get back to it. It’s a book I want to re-read at some time – and there aren’t many of those.
My thanks go to Camilla Macpherson, who kindly sent me a copy of her book. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.