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Victorian melodrama of a thriller
on 2 October 2005
Robert Goddard's take on the Martin Guerre theme of the ghost of the past returning to try to re-establish his identity, and be haunted by the present. It is the late Victorian era and we find a sophisticated English gentleman resurrecting himself from a supposed grave to become embroiled in emotional, legal, and violent contests as he endeavours to re-establish his name, claim the title and riches which are his due, and win back the woman he loved ... now married to another.
Goddard has built a reputation on his ability to weave mysteries and thrillers out of the passage of time - his stories reach back into the histories of his characters, explore the histories of nations, and create a depth and sophistication in storytelling which few can emulate. In 'Painting the Darkness', allusions to real events and the inclusion of real historical figures serve only to throw into relief the lack of verifiable history which James Norton can offer to prove his identity, and the refusal of his family and world to accept as valid the history he does provide.
This is a fairly lengthy novel, nearly 600 pages, and the first chapter is just a little slow. Goddard simulates the language of upper class, Victorian England - restrained, formal, refined; as you get into its rhythm and style, you become absorbed in the story, but those first few pages take you through a learning curve in the metre and formality of the language, and can be a little off-putting. Persevere, for this is a finely crafted tale, with Goddard's usual menu of red herrings, spiced and sauced, and served with many a twist.
Goddard is a very fine writer and an outstanding storyteller. 'Painting the Darkness' is no breakneck thriller - it moves at elegant pace, subtle as the swish of satin, graceful as a ballgown's passage across the floor, with just the hint of a well-turned ankle. Highly entertaining, with a convincing sense of place and time, it will keep you guessing to the end.