The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry
There have been many novels about the search for missing art masterpieces, but few so convoluted as this. It’s written totally in the first person as a confession by Thomas Lynch, a randy old professor of art history who is an expert on the renaissance masters, Bellini in particular. Disgraced from his college, he goes on the hunt for an uncatalogued Bellini Madonna which leads him to a mouldering old English Manor House – Mawle.
He invites himself to stay with the Ropers, the house’s owners to catalogue their art, but is really on the hunt for the Madonna – no-one is sure if it really exists. He dreams of stealing it away to ‘find’ it again and make his fortune. Roper’s Italian wife, Maddelena is now a widow flounces in, but soon dashes off back to Italy, leaving Lynch under the care of her daughter Anna who is also looking after a rather strange little girl called Vicky.
From the moment they meet, a game of cat and mouse ensues between Lynch and Anna. At first he worries about outstaying his welcome, but then he finds the lost diary of former owner of the house James Roper who was on the grand tour with Robert Browning and meets the family who a reputed to own the painting – this is the clearest clue yet to the work’s existence. Anna though seems to be encouraging him to stay and he starts to feel a strong attraction to her. But who is manipulating whom? There are so many questions to answer … Will Lynch find the Madonna? Will Anna succumb to him? Why does she stay in this old house? Just how does the child Vicky fit in? Why are they happy to have this stranger in their midst?
None of the characters are likeable at all, but we do grow to understand them as the truth is revealed little by little and we find out their own stories and, through the diaries, that of Anna’s ancestor. Lynch’s language is elaborate and rather over-wrought, but you really can sense the run-down house and the dusty treasures it may contain. The story requires concentration with the flowery prose, and it takes its time in building up the tension in a rather leisurely way. It is only in the last fifty pages or so that things start to become clear as the pace heats up towards the climax. As a debut novel it is remarkably complex and defies neat categorisation. I’m not convinced that telling the story purely from Lynch’s point of view works completely, alternating between Anna and him could have upped the underlying sense of mischief (it puts me in mind of the film ‘Sleuth ‘). It was certainly intriguing and will make you look at some of the renaissance masters with a renewed interest.