Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager - reviewed by Rebecca Styles

 (Random NZ) 2013

Tara McClusky lives in a leaky home with her father who has been struck down by repeated strokes.  Her mother, who is a nurse on the night shift at the local hospital, only exchanges the practicalities of life with her daughter before rushing off to work.  Tara’s days are spent at school before heading to work as a nurse aide at a retirement village, and finally returning home to care for her father.  Day to day life is hard for Tara which is exacerbated by the lack of love and affection in the family’s ramshackle house.  The one member of her family that she did connect with, her sister Van, died several years ago.

            The redeeming feature of Tara’s life is her artistic talent and love of Vincent Van Gogh.  Tara spends her mornings at school painting her reinterpretations of Van Gogh’s images for her scholarship exams.  She is nurtured by her art teacher who wants to see Tara utilise her talent and go to university.  Tara’s appreciation of Van Gogh also connects her to a rest home resident, Professor Max Stockhamer, who shares her passion for art.

            Max came to New Zealand to escape Austria after the Second World War, and Tara’s parents immigrated to escape the Troubles of Ireland.  The narrative shows how political circumstances affect individuals and how they struggle to come to terms with the past, and how this affects future generations.  Max relates his life story to Tara and explains how he has come to make peace with his past, and make a life in New Zealand.  While Max’s perspective offers a positive way to move forward, Tara’s parents have not come to terms with their past. Throughout the novel Tara comes to learn the truth about her sister, and why her parents moved to New Zealand and ultimately understand their feelings of bitterness. 

            The main concern of the novel is how to find the strength to live when you cannot see a way out of the darkness.  Art is one way in which Tara can interpret and express her feelings, yet her artistic muse ended his own life (this fact is debated later in the novel).  Tara loves not only Van Gogh’s art but his words.  The chapters are headed with excerpts from Van Gogh’s writing which illustrate feelings that Tara relates to.  While Tara believes that Van Gogh speaks to her, Van, her sister, also does.  Tara often intuits what Van would say in given situations.  The conflation of Van Gogh’s and her sister’s nickname Van suggests that the two people become one person who struggles to find hope, and the crux of the novel is Tara deciding whether to choose the same ending as her beloved Vans, or whether she decides to listen to her own voice.

            Hager’s writing is clear and has a strong pace.  At the end of the novel she elicits sympathy for all of her characters.  She also brings to the fore the concerns of teenagers who struggle to find their identity when their parents can’t or won’t divulge the truth.  Hager successfully gets inside Tara’s head and the portrayal reminded me what it was like being a teenager and the struggle for identity.  The novel tackles the issues of self harm and suicide with honesty and sensitivity.  Hager illustrates that love, understanding, and art are the ways to move forward.

About the reviewer:
Rebecca Styles is a Creative Writing PhD student at Massey University.  She completed the MA at the IIML in 2011 and has published short stories in local journals and anthologies.  

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