Monday, 27 January 2014

Illumination - Matthew Plampin


An unusual book - intriguing - with a great deal going for it and yet not quite getting there.  The setting is fresh - the Siege of Paris by Bismarck's Prussians in 1870, a comparatively recent event but not one I have come across in popular fiction.  The main characters are also unusual, the feisty English journalist Elizabeth Pardy and her twins, Hannah and Clem.  Hannah has run away to Paris to become an artist; Elizabeth and Clem receive a letter begging them to come and rescue her.  Hannah knows nothing about this, nor has she any intention of being rescued.  She couldn't be happier, living in Montmarte with her lover Jean-Jacques Allix, hero of the radical Left.

This is a brilliant premise, which only gets better when Clem hooks up with the aerostier Besson.  Plampin has a luminous writing style in which his artistic eye furnishes striking and beautiful images.  He is, understandably, especially good on colours and visual tone.  The twists and turns of the Pardy family fortunes are diverting enough but it all comes to a somewhat peremptory end.  When push comes to shove, the setting is a siege and, whilst we are told about the dreadful suffering of the people, Pamplin never quite succeeds in making us feel their suffering.

I liked Illumination a lot - but I didn't love it, and I really wanted to.

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