Published by Virago
Publication date – 2 June 2016
Source – review copy
“A tender and savage novel narrated by the wife of the doctor who tended van Gogh in his last, madly frenetic painting years.
Provence, May 1889. The hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole is home to the mentally ill. An old monastery, it sits at the foot of Les Alpilles mountains amongst wheat fields, herbs and olive groves. For years, the fragile have come here and lived quietly, found rest behind the shutters and high, sun-baked walls.
Tales of the new arrival – his savagery, his paintings, his copper-red hair – are quick to find the warden’s wife. From her small white cottage, Jeanne Trabuc watches him – how he sets his easel amongst the trees, the irises and the fields of wheat, and paints in the heat of the day.
Jeanne knows the rules; she knows not to approach the patients at Saint-Paul. But this man – paint-smelling, dirty, troubled and intense – is, she thinks, worth talking to. So ignoring her husband’s wishes, the dangers and despite the word mad, Jeanne climbs over the hospital wall. She will find that the painter will change all their lives.
Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a beautiful novel about the repercussions of longing, of loneliness and of passion for life. But it’s also about love – and how it alters over time.”
My thanks to Virago for the review copy. The following review is my honest opinion of the novel.
Jeanne Trabuc has spent the last 30 years married to Charles Trabuc, warden of the hospital Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum in Provence. She has spent those years raising children, seeing them leave for new lives. She keeps house, avoids the gossip of the women at the market and complies with Charles’ rule that she does not interact with the patients. But then a new patient arrives, a painter, troubled and suffering from a grievous self-inflicted injury. Jeanne finds herself drawn to this man with the bright red hair and Dutch name. As she gets to know the painter her staid life begins to change.
Just as Vincent in his paintings uses layers of colours to create the whole, his friendship with Jeanne highlights her layers. She re-discovers the girl she used to be, doing handstands in the town square, reflects on her relationship with her beloved father and assesses her relationship with Charles. I want to be careful not to reveal too much about the story as the joy of the book really is in following Jeanne’s journey of self-discovery.
This is not really a story about Vincent Van Gogh. He is the catalyst that starts Jeanne’s journey of self-discovery, or more aptly, re-discovery. His friendship with the older woman ignites in her the sense of freedom and liberation she once had and sets her mind to wondering what more life can have to offer her.
Susan Fletcher uses such vivid descriptions I could easily imagine the scenes played out in the novel, imagined them as if Van Gogh himself had painted them using his bright oil paints and unique style. Vincent is portrayed as a conflicting character, self-centred when it comes to his art, often aloof yet slowly he becomes more open with the warden’s wife, allowing glimpses into his life and his mental health.
The characterisation in the novel is spot on. I could easily imagine the nuns wandering the asylum, the troubled colleague of Charles, and the gossiping women of the market, staring at Jeanne and whispering as she walked by. Charles is an interesting character, a war veteran, who’s hard, unyielding exterior may hide hidden emotions, hinted at by his reaction to the departure of his youngest son. I could easily envisage Vincent, straw hat atop his fiery red hair, beard speckled with paint as he stood before his easel. As for Jeanne, she is of course the focus of this novel and slowly comes alive as the reader discovers more about her. I soon found myself enchanted with the world of Jeanne Trabuc. She seems both younger than her years but world weary, practical yet romantic and she was a joy to read.
This really is a well-written, engaging, wonderful tale of friendship, love and acceptance. It is the first novel by Susan Fletcher I have read. I will be seeking out her others. Highly recommended.