Harper Perennial, €15.00
Well known for his complex historical thrillers ('The Dream of Scipio', 'An Instance of the Fingerpost'), Iain Pears has stripped down his writing technique for his latest novel, which takes the form of a threatening monologue delivered by artist Henry MacAlpine.
Although at the vanguard of the art scene in London and Paris at the turn of the 20th Century, Henry has fled to an island off Brittany - chased by murky events involving his one-time friend and mentor William Nasmyth.
Four years of solitude have passed before William, now the foremost critic in London, requests a self-portrait and comes out to visit him. Henry embraces the situation as an opportunity to examine why he had left London and more importantly if he could ever go back.
Although once close, Henry's hatred of William is evident in the portrait he paints: "do you see the coldness I have put in around your eyes, the cruelty of the mouth, and the calculation of the chin? The background is dark because there has never been anyone in this world but yourself."
They met in Paris when Henry was a 27-year-old painter of no education or connections. The slightly older, but vastly more experienced William fascinated him with his knowledge and his ability "never to doubt, never to hesitate about the correctness of his opinions".
Henry wanted some of this boundless self-confidence to rub off on him so he could shake off his own poor Scottish roots and in turn William was happy to treat Henry as his pupil and share some of the cultural capital he had inherited from his privileged background.
As William's reputation as a critic grew Henry felt the seeds of discontent with his friend but maintained he could always forgive the ruthless cruelties that he inflicted with his pen, as long as he told the truth. However slowly William's obsessive need for power and the delight he took in pulling strings - rewarding some and condemning others to professional death - became uncontrollable, with the consequences becoming more devastating.
Pears - who is an art historian in his own right - provides an interesting backdrop of the thriving art scene in Paris and London, when French impressionists such as Cézanne and Van Gogh were becoming famous. His use of the slightly creepy monologue technique is effective in reversing the normal dynamic between artist and critic - now the critic is exposed and under scrutiny.
At the heart of 'The Portrait' is the friction between artist and critic, and the conflict many artists feel with striking a need for widespread acclaim and the desire for creative integrity.
Pears paints a dark picture of an art world where powerful figures can make or break artists and where the game must be played to succeed. He is a sharp storyteller and 'The Portrait' is an intoxicating tale of revenge that quickly draws the reader in.