‘Provence ~ May 1889
He’s foreign. Dutch I think. A strange man. Wild. And self-wounded, I hear – violently so’
Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a beautiful novel written by Susan Fletcher. Published by Virago Press in 2016, I received my copy from TripFiction to review. On receiving it in the post I immediately knew that here was a book I would love..
Read on for my thoughts….
Provence, May 1889.
The hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole is home to the mentally ill. An old monastery, it sits at the foot of Les Alpilles mountains among wheat fields, herbs and olive groves. For years the fragile have come here and lived quietly, found rest behind the shutters and high, sun-baked walls.
Tales of a new arrival – his savagery, his paintings, his copper-red hair — are quick to find the warden’s wife. From her small white cottage, Jeanne Trabuc watches him — how he sets his easel among the trees, the irises and the fields of wheat, and paints in the heat of the day.
Jeanne knows the rules; she knows not to approach the patients at Saint-Paul. But this man –paint-smelling, dirty, troubled and intense– is, she thinks, worth talking to. So ignoring her husband’s wishes, the dangers and despite the word ‘mad’, Jeanne climbs over the hospital wall. She will find that the painter changes all their lives
Before I begin my review of this novel I would like to share with you an excerpt from Susan Fletcher.
‘The idea for this book grew as I read a few of the many letters that passed between Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. This contemplative, tender writer seemed so different from the man I’d assumed van Gogh to be. His year at Saint-Remy specifically intrigued me – the asylum, the landscape around it and how he produced his finest work when he was perhaps, at his most ill. Charles and Jeanne Trabuc existed (as did Peyron, Poulet and Salles)…..’
Here is a novel that gently sweeps you along through the landscape of Provence.
Jeanne and her husband Charles live beside the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. Surrounded by olive groves, with the scent of herbs tormenting your senses, this is a hospital where those with matters-of-the-mind are institutionalised for a stay, some longer than others.
Charles and Jeanne Trabuc have lived in the vicinity all of their married life, as Charles is the curator of the facility. Living in the shadow of these people with fragile minds has taken it’s toll on their marriage. With the children long moved on, Jeanne struggles to raise her head every day as the hours all seem to blend into one.
With the most stunning scenery on her doorstep, it’s very hard to believe how anyone could be so unsettled but Jeanne is frustrated. She has been looking at the same scene day in day out. As issues have arisen at the clinic Charles work keeps him away from her for longer and Jeanne is lonely.
Originally coming from Arle, Jeanne is used to the hub-bub of people going about their daily lives. Here on the foothills of Les Alpilles, all Jeanne hears is the cicadas clicking and the beginnings of The Mistral, ‘Mistrau in the local tongue. Wind of change, of shallow sleep’
News of an impending arrival at the clinic is met with curiosity and excitement. There has been nobody new for quite some time and this visitor brings a change, like the changing wind itself.
Vincent van Gogh, with his fiery red hair, his fox like appearance and his very distinctive smell opens up a whole new world for Jeanne.
‘There isn’t a colour on his palette that’s brighter than his own…His eyebrows too. They’re thick, almost blond. And his eyes themselves might have matched the sky above the Camargue if she’d ever seen that sky – the bluest blue, with birds and shadows blowing through, and yet she can imagine these eyes growing dark.’
Charles leads a very strict life after coming back from the Crimean War and he has invoked many rules over their married life. With the arrival of ‘The Dutchman’, Jeanne starts to open her eyes a little more to the life she has been leading. She begins to see the beauty in the landscape around her and takes time to properly look at the sway of a leaf, the colour of a flower, the scent of an herb.
The more of this she is exposed to, the hungrier Jeanne gets. Her innocent, yet forbidden, meetings with van Gogh has her greedy for more. No longer satisfied with the secluded life she leads, Jeanne returns to the memories of her youth. She was an excitable daring child always up for adventure, but this sense of spirit has been knocked out of her over the years, Van Gogh is the catalyst that shakes her up out of this reverie.
Susan Fletcher has written a glorious novel, where every page turned takes your senses on a trip.
While this novel is a story made up of both historical fact and fiction, it is also an escape for the reader to Provence. I suspect, the landscape is no different today than it was in 1889. The story of Jeanne and Charles Trabuc is a beautiful love story. Two people who have grown apart over the years, who struggled to see what had become of them, suddenly have their eyes opened.
Vincent van Gogh comes into their lives like The Mistral and causes chaos as he paints but yet, like The Mistral, he moves on, with devastation in his trail followed by hope and the rediscovery of oneself and of love.
Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a tender, compassionate tale, with Provence and it’s surroundings as a stunning backdrop. I love historical fiction and without doubt this book ticked all the boxes for me.
Thank you so much TripFiction for my review copy.. You can find lots more wonderful books to take you on any adventure you desire by further checking out http://www.tripfiction.com
Purchase Link : Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew
About Susan Fletcher:
Susan Fletcher was born in 1979 in Birmingham. She graduated from the UEA Creative Writing Course and now lives in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Her first novel, Eve Green, won the 2004 Whitbread First Novel Award, the Betty Trask Prize, the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and the Richard and Judy Summer Read in 2005. Her second novel, Oystercatchers was published to great critical acclaim.