Monday 25 March 2019

Review by Azra Limbada of "The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet" by Sam Meekings

The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet by Sam Meekings is a historical fiction novel that weaves in and out of both the imagined life of Peter Gachet, as well as providing a reflective commentary on the author’s journey of discovering and writing about the subject of Van Gogh’s famous painting. 

The novel focuses primarily on exploring the sadness captured in the painting, as well as attempting to trace its unique and elusive journey through the hands of investors and art collectors. Meekings skilfully portrays the inner turmoil of a man who felt out of place and out of time, and who consequently turned to the arts for comfort and escape. As the doctor explains at one point, he chose medicine since he ‘was not talented enough to be an artist,’ and this fascination with what art achieves, or tries to, is thoroughly examined throughout. 

For Meekings, the painting is of personal significance, explaining how a chance encounter with a small print of it left him feeling like there was ‘a tiny marble rolling around the inside of my skull.’ In many ways, the novel seeks to explore the connection between art and society in a philosophical fashion, traipsing a fine line between art as representational, and art as a means of individual communication between subject and viewer. As readers, we, too, explore the afterlives of Dr. Gachet, both as a door into a somewhat imagined past, as well as finding an individual human bond between him and ourselves. 

One slight drawback to the novel is the reminder the author continuously gives us of the fact that this is a piece of historical fiction and that there are plenty of incidents that cannot be written without some creative re-imagination. When approaching historical fiction, this is a given, and can take away from the sense of suspended belief a reader is accustomed to.  Often, it feels as though the author is trying to convince us that the application of this creative licence is okay but perhaps that is not necessary at all. We are already drawn into the world of Peter from the moment he faces his biggest hurdle, after he grievously injures himself at the start of the novel. Ultimately, as readers, we are happily prepared to let the author use whatever facts are at his disposal to re-create an otherwise compelling story, and one in which a young man tries ‘to be anything but a boy cursed with a mangled ankle and a relentless shyness.’

The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet artfully captures a glimpse into the life of a man whose lined face continues to stir emotions in its modern day viewers. You may not find the answer to whatever that elusive element is in this book, but you will understand better why it is so easy to relate to Doctor Gachet’s sadness, so clearly visible through the medium of colour and oil on canvas. 

About the reviewer Azra Limbada is an English PhD student, currently providing literacy intervention at an SEN school. She enjoys reading and writing women’s fiction in her spare time.

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