Nina Schuyler makes a fearless debut with “The Painting” (Algonquin Books, $24). Not only does Schuyler take on characters in 1869 Japan, she creates a parallel story of characters in 1870 France. And what’s more, each of the separate stories is equally compelling.
The Japanese storyline tells of Hayashi, a potter and government official who’s been disfigured, and his wife Ayoshi, a painter who pines for her former lover. Meanwhile, in France, Jorgen is a Dane who was paid by a Frenchman to take his place in the Franco-Prussian war. Natalia is the woman who helps him recover from his injuries and who longs to be a soldier herself. The two stories are connected by one of Ayoshi’s paintings, which Jorgen stumbles upon, thinking it's one of the most beautiful things he’s ever seen.
There’s a lot going on here and amazingly enough, Schuyler manages to
hold it together. Her use of multiple viewpoints within each section can be
a bit dizzying — every character gets a say within this novel —
but it’s hard not to admire the chutzpah it takes to even attempt that
kind of complex narrative. Though the characters from the Japan sections never
interact with the characters from the France sections, the stories themselves
do mesh together thematically. Ayoshi and Jorgen long for love and have secrets
in their pasts, while Hayashi and Natalia both strive to be noble and yet question
what it means to serve one’s country. A surprisingly good debut from a
promising new writer.