This little book published by Fairlight Moderns came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize earlier this year. I wasn’t sure it would be my sort of book but it sounded intriguing and at only 160 pages I knew it would be perfect for Novellas in November.
The book opens in the present day with our unnamed narrator buying a postcard from a Parisian market stall beside the Eiffel Tower. The postcard is completely blue on one side and date stamped 1957. The young woman who sells it to him has no idea of its significance, but the narrator knows exactly what it is: an invitation to an exhibition of the French artist Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings which was held in that year. He takes the card away with him but is drawn back to the stall again and again hoping to find more blue postcards and slowly a relationship begins to develop between the narrator and Michelle, the postcard seller.
Two other narratives are woven into the story. In one, we follow the career of Yves Klein, who becomes famous as the creator of International Klein Blue (IKB), an intense shade of aquamarine. In the other we meet Henri, a Jewish tailor – the only one left on what was once called the Street of Tailors. Henri also has a connection with blue: he sews a blue thread, in a shade known as ‘tekhelet’ in Hebrew, into the leg of every suit he makes in the belief that it will bring good luck to the wearer. One day, Yves Klein visits the tailor to order a suit and so the three separate parts of the novel fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
There was something to interest me in each of the three storylines. In the modern day one it was the unreliability of the narrator who admits that some of the things he is telling us didn’t necessarily happen and that memories can change over the years. The most compelling parts of Henri’s story involve his memories of the 1930s when he and his family were victims of the Night of Broken Windows. And I was struck by the descriptions of Klein’s monochrome exhibition where he displayed eleven identical blue (IKB) squares, placed at different angles and priced differently because he argued that the experience of viewing each one was different. I knew nothing about Klein before reading this book and his art is not really the kind I like, but it was good to learn a little bit about him.
What makes this book unusual, however, is the structure – and as I suspected, it wasn’t entirely successful with me! There are five chapters and each chapter is made up of one hundred numbered paragraphs, some only one or two sentences long but all what you could describe as ‘postcard-sized’. The three narratives alternate rapidly throughout the book, so we have one or two paragraphs telling the narrator’s story then one or two telling Henri’s or Yves Klein’s. I found it easy enough to follow but it does feel fragmented and meant I didn’t have time to become invested in one story before switching back to another.
Bruton has also set himself the challenge of including the word ‘blue’ at least once in every single paragraph, so we have characters with blue eyes, clothes with blue ink stains, mussels with blue shells, memories lost in the blue mists of time, and so on. Add to this the narrator’s obsession with finding blue postcards, Klein’s obsession with creating blue artworks and Henri’s obsession with blue threads and I started to feel overwhelmed with blue. There’s no doubt that it’s all very cleverly done and can’t have been an easy book to write, but I personally prefer books that allow me to become fully absorbed in the story without any distractions. I wasn’t the ideal reader for this book, but I knew that before I started and wanted to try it anyway, so I don’t have any complaints!
Have you read anything by Douglas Bruton – or any of the other books in the Fairlight Moderns collection?
Book #59 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.