Book review: Fugitive Blue, by Claire Thomas

15 11 2018

Claire Thomas is an Australian author and academic with short story publications in journals including Meanjin and Overland. Her first (and, thus far, sole) novel, Fugitive Blue, won the 2009 Dobbie Award for women writers and was longlisted in that year’s Miles Franklin Award.

FugitiveBlue

Fugitive Blue is the story of a young art conservator’s doomed romantic relationship, told in backdrop against her foregrounded obsession with restoring and researching a fifteenth-century painted poplar panel (a pair of angels in flight, embedded in an expansive sky of then-priceless ultramarine pigmentation) by an unheralded female artist, Caterina, whose name is boldly scribed upon the panel’s back. Intercut with the conservator’s efforts and observations, the narrative also furnishes lengthy interludes from the artwork’s long life, from renaissance Venice through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, as seen through the eyes of various protagonists. It’s a quietly intense story, filled with patience and precision and the conservator’s need to undo the damage of centuries of quiet existence.

I generally feel somewhat cheated when, as here, what initially presents itself as the dominant narrative instead reveals itself to be a framing story for other episodes (and, yes, I’m not unaware of the double meaning of the term ‘framing story’ in a novel on art conservation). I forgive this tendency in Fugitive Blue because the structure works here: in part because it is entirely natural for the conservator, attempting to arrange the best possible outcome for the warping panel’s time-tarnished image, to seek to unravel its past, and in part because this arrangement provides precisely the precarious balance between immediacy and the weight of dead time that is required to tell this particular story well. The historical episodes—in Venice (on two occasions, separated by centuries); in Paris; and in a migrant camp in Albury-Wodonga—are depicted in an unhurried and immersive style, with plenty of time taken to bring their various characters to full life. There are also some impressive details hiding in plain sight as the slow-release tragedy at the novel’s heart plays out. Recommended.