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The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story - review

Another Susan Hill novella has landed itself on my Kindle! The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story was the perfect thing to read between longer novels while I struggle to finish assignments for my course, and left a certain impression on me by the end...!

Set in the seclusion of Cambridge University halls, before the student year begins, an old professor recounts the story of a painting he came to possess to one of his ex-students: "To share the burden". The painting is of a Carnival scene in Venice; everyone is in costume, the faces are lit by torches, the canals are inky black... and one man in the picture stares right out at the surveyor, terrified, pleading. It is this man that keeps the professor, and the student, returning to look at the painting, captivating them, invading their dreams and their thoughts.

As the professor confesses he came to the own the painting at the misfortune of a widowed countess, the strangeness of the painting reveals itself.

The countess had received the painting as a wedding gift after a string of malicious letters from a woman her husband was previously engaged to. Bitter and threatening, the letters wished ill-fate upon the newly wed couple and their happiness. The painting felt sinister and dark, and the countess hid it away. Soon, the couple took a trip to Venice - where they became separated. The countess never found her husband, and did not know what had happened to him. When she returned home she was consumed by a need to look at the painting, and it was then that she noticed a new addition to the 18th century artwork. Her husband was now part of the scene, and was being accosted by two masked men upon a gondola. In the crowd, a little further on, the image of the estranged and malicious fiancee stared on...

As strange disappearances and unexplained disasters continue in the novel, the reader is left wondering what "burden" has been passed to the professors ex-student, and what will it mean for him.

I have to admit that while I enjoyed reading this novella, I did not find it as good as previous books I have read by Susan Hill. Despite the claim to be a "ghost story" in it's title, the story actually felt more supernatural than ghostly. You probably think this is one and the same, but I think there is a difference: in a ghost story, there is a tangible threat of the ghost, even if it is only revealed at the end, there is a known cause of the action. In a supernatural tale, the threat is "unexplained" events, or "unnatural" goings-on, things just happen. This book was more of the latter. There was just no haunting, and this disappointed me a little. Not to mention the fact that "disappearances" do not amount to deaths, and how can there be ghosts without that?! Even the assumed perpetrator of the events is seen alive during the course of the story!

The writing itself was as good as any of Susan Hill's books, though I felt some adjectives were overused ("sinister", the main culprit!), and characters were introduced succinctly. As it often the case in novellas, they didn't experience much in the way of development, but they also didn't need to, they were just objects for things to "happen" to.

Even though The Man in the Picture was not a "ghost" story, it did however, have something of an uncomfortable resonance. It was actually eerie in its purchase, if not its story. As many readers may already know, I am originally from Cambridge myself, and many places mentioned in the book are ones I know well. I have also, just a few days ago, booked myself and my boyfriend a trip to Venice, before reading this book. So readers, if I do not make it back, look for me... Look for me in paintings! ;)

1 comment

  1. Awesome review my sinister little friend! I shalt search for thou shouldst thou go missing - I shalt forever scourer the halls of Fitzwilliam Museum.

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