Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson
The Muralist is about a fictional
artist working for the WPA Federal Art Project, part of Franklin Roosevelt's
New Deal initiative to restore the US economy after the Great Depression.
Artists who later became noted abstract expressionists, like Mark Rothko,
Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, were hired through the WPA to create murals
for public buildings.
novel imagines a "missing link" between representational art and
abstract expressionism: the fictional Alizée Benoit, the orphaned American
daughter of Jewish immigrants from France. In the present-day frame story, Alizée's
great-niece Danielle, a young employee at Christie's auction house, discovers a
group of unsigned paintings which remind her of her great-aunt's only known
work, two semi-abstract paintings given to Danielle by her grandmother. Alizée
"disappeared under shadowy circumstances in 1940," and the novel
moves between Danielle present-day search for clues to Alizée's story, and the
emotionally frail Alizée in the late 1930s.
Breckinridge Long, an assistant secretary of state in Franklin Roosevelt's administration during World War II, deliberately obstructed and delayed the issuance of visas to Jews fleeing territory occupied by Nazi Germany. His policy's cruel results are explored in The Muralist, and have become sadly relevant in 2017 as a new U.S. administration imposes limits on immigration by refugees fleeing war-torn countries. But although Long's policy and its effects are based on historical fact, an attempt to assassinate him depicted in the novel is not. Fiction has the power to illuminate history by portraying imagined characters and events, helping readers understand how and why events came about, or may have come about. But readers can be misled, confused or irritated when events that did not happen are too freely mixed with those that did. In my view, this novel steps over the line by depicting real historical people in highly dramatic situations that did not happen. (2015, 337 pages)