"Paint what you see, Johann, not what you think you see."
So says the court painter to his apprentice. But Johann possesses more than the power to paint a person's soul...
He can alter it.
A historical supernatural literary arty fairytale.
Now, I know what you're thinking - 'Blimey! That's a lot of literary genres!' - but this book manages to combine the best bits of all of them into one haunting and beautiful story.
If we can skip over that I just used the word 'blimey', I'll get to telling you about this book. It is the story of Johann, a young and talented artist, who is discovered in his parents' inn by the court painter Hugo and his wife Magdalena. Hugo decides to take Johann back to his workshop in Ghent and make him his apprentice.
As Johann begins to learn the techniques of portrait painting, he realises that the act of painting a person gives him a glimpse into the private life behind the public face - perhaps even a glimpse into the soul. He begins to sense that his powers stretch beyond painting the truth of his subjects - through the tiniest alterations he can make them what they ought to be.
The various subjects that Johann paints - the spice merchant's wife, the spoilt prince - have a fable-like quality to them, with literary justice dealt from Johann's brush, but they are also utterly real. The spice merchant's wife's sadness at being childless stares out at you from the book, like a portrait. Richard Knight has done with words what the artists in the book do with paints - capturing a person's thoughts and feelings and giving you a glimpse into their soul. There are real moments of sadness and heart-warming loveliness in the book - the way that Hugo and Magdalena care for Johann like a son, and Johann's own loneliness as he has no friends his age.
The supernatural tone creeps into the book, linked to the mysterious power of the artist, giving it a gothic, Dorian Gray-type feeling, but never jarring with the historical setting. The possibility that Johann can change people with his painting is a fascinating exploration of that uncanny sense when you look at a portrait and realise that your view mirrors that of the artist - you are standing where they were and they shape what you see, but remain invisible (although watch out for the mirror...)
Picture: Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (1434) of Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. van Eyck is referred to in the book and Johann goes to see his paintings. It is this style - at once real life and full of mystery - that the book explores.
The book gets you thinking about these questions of art and reality (or it did for me, anyway - hence the rambling above), but the main thing is that it does this by telling you a very good story.
A stunning work of art.