The reader comes to know this other Vincent through the eyes of Rachel, the Arlesian prostitute who narrates the tale. A schoolteacher's daughter who turns to prostitution in order to survive after the deaths of her parents, Rachel first encounters "the foreigner with the funny name who wander[s] the countryside painting pictures" in a public garden when he draws her as she sleeps. As the relationship between the two blossoms, Vincent slowly reveals his hidden side: his complex relationship with his art-dealer brother Theo, who supports him monetarily and emotionally, yet whose happy and seemingly unattainable family life torments the artist; the guilt Vincent carries over abandoning a woman he lived with for years; his frustration at being ignored and misunderstood by the art establishment of his day. His biggest secret, the one that results in the "ear incident" itself, is the mental crises that plague him, the fits (epilepsy? lead poisoning? syphilis? Bundrick opts for bipolar disorder) that send him to hospital and asylum and ultimately compel him to take his own life. Rachel, with dogged devotion and deep love for this man who sees past her tawdry circumstances to a soul that, like his, has suffered greatly, never deserts him. If he teaches her anything at all, it is to follow the sun--to seek light and beauty despite the darkness that threatens to overwhelm her.
Rachel's tale is an engaging one; I was swept up in the narrative and read the book over the course of only a few days. Although at times I felt the depiction of her life as a prostitute was a bit romanticized (I expected sheltered Rachel to be more traumatized by her parents' deaths and her nightly encounters with strange men), her spunkiness and determination to create a new life for herself and Vincent provide a plausible thematic counterpoint -- instead of wallowing in pity and fear, she seeks to create something beautiful out of her brokenness and shame. As with most well-written historical fiction, it was fascinating to find the facts and commonplaces of a historical person's existence fleshed out in ways I hadn't expected -- Gauguin's jealous vindictiveness, for example, or Vincent's fascination with the sea. Bundrick's descriptions of Provence capture with great accuracy and vividness the sights and sounds and colors of the region, as well as the customs and character of its inhabitants. The book's final chapter is sublime, the crowning moment of an obvious work of love on the author's part. I was sad to finish reading and can only hope to enjoy another fine historical novel from Sheramy Bundrick before too long a wait. Congratulations to the author on a remarkable and most promising debut.