“The Yellow House” Jeroen Blokhuis (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Yellow House by Jeroen Blokhuis book coverSubtitled “A novel about Vincent Van Gogh” and translated from the Dutch by Asja Novak, this novel focuses on the painter’s life from August 1888 to December 1889, when he moved from Paris to Arles, hoping to paint the Mediterranean sun and create a painters’ school. The opening plunges readers into the aftermath of a murder, blamed on Italian migrants and Van Gogh is roped into ensuring the last two migrants are driven away. The migrants already know that leaving isn’t safe and go peacefully. On the way back into Arles, Van Gogh is thinking about the children who periodically throw stones at him when he’s static at his easel. Curiously, although the novel is in Van Gogh’s viewpoint, he never draws parallels between his situation and that of the Italian migrants. The implication is that Van Gogh sees himself as the outsider and doesn’t attempt to integrate with the locals, despite eating out and using a local prostitute.

When Gaugain visits, Van Gogh gives him the bedroom, anxious that Gaugain’s stay will be a happy one because he wants this to be the beginning of his school. He spends his days painting and his nights in long conversation with his guest, leading to lack of sleep and malnourishment. Readers see a Van Gogh who flits between reading and observing people and being completely baffled by them. He’s most at ease in front of his easel, but never discusses his paintings in detail although he describes what he’s trying to capture. In one scene, both painters paint Marie Ginoux where it is Gaugain who tries to put his subject at ease while Van Gogh observes and paints.

The ear cutting incident is dealt with in the aftermath, when, weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh is incoherent and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Gaugain leaves, fearing his visit triggered the incident, although Van Gogh already had a history of psychosis. Van Gogh recovers sufficiently to return to Arles and the novel ends before his final stay in an asylum.

Through “The Yellow House” readers see the painter as a man incapable of managing everyday life and driven to paint. Jeroen Blokhuis avoids the cliche of tortured, misunderstood genius and creates Van Gogh as someone inspired by his surroundings, who largely communicated by painting and a man blighted by poverty and an inability to integate with others, blaming himself for not being able to make friends. In this way Van Gogh is recognisable and sympathetic. He sees with a poetic (but not archaic) eye, often describing what he sees as eloquently as he paints it. Even readers who are not a fan of the artist, will find much to recognise in an empathetic portrait of a driven man finding his talents leave him on the fringes of society, observing but not invited to join in. An elegantly written, convincing novel that’s as layered and multi-dimensional as a Van Gogh painting.

The Yellow House is available from Holland Park Press.


 

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