‘The Purple Shadow‘ by Christopher Bowden
In the years before the war, Sylvie Charlot was a leading light in Paris fashion with many friends among musicians, artists and writers. Now she is largely forgotten. Spending time in Paris during a break in his acting career, Colin Mallory sees a striking portrait of Sylvie. Some think it is a late work by Édouard Vuillard but there is no signature or documentary evidence to support this view.
The picture has some unusual qualities, not least the presence of a shadow of something that cannot be seen. Perhaps the picture was once larger. Colin feels an odd sense of connection with Sylvie, who seems to be looking at him, appealing to him, wanting to tell him something. Despite a warning not to pursue his interest in her portrait, he is determined to find out more about the painting, who painted it, and why it was hidden for many years.
Colin’s search takes him back to the film and theatre worlds of Paris and London in the 1930s – and to a house in present-day Sussex. As he uncovers the secrets of Sylvie’s past, her portrait seems to take on a life of its own.
‘The Purple Shadow’ by Christopher Bowden is a novel of flowing prose, elegiac phrasing and subtlty of characterisation.
At the opening of the novel, out of work actor Colin Mallory is a malingering flanuer, perusing the streets of Paris at his pleasure.
Oddly, one of the toughest aspects of reading this novel is that it is so evocative of Paris that is almost painful in a world of lockdowns and social distancing. Bowden writes with a quiet panache and obvious affection for the City of Love that one is left with a feeling of nostalgia and great longing to return to the capital.
“His view was dormers and balconies, shutters and skylights, chimneys and blank walls. Even these were becoming indistinct as the blue light of evening gave way to night.”
Christopher Bowden is clearly a talented artist in his own right and he weaves the strands of plot between forgotten British movie stars of the interwar years with the latter day painting recovery with the skill of a Royal Academician.
Colour imagery positively throbs through the tale. From the second page’s “bright white walls,’ to the “chevrons of indigo, orange and grey” on the last, colours are used to mirror emotions and evoke the surroundings. It is skilfully and unobtrusively carried out.
My issue with the novel is, unfortunately, one which perturbed me for the entire end third of the book. The purple stain of the title is, as the blurb makes clear so this is not a spoiler, one on a painting. The stain seems to be changing, adapting and – possibly – literally moving and yet all of the characters just seem to shrug and say, “Creepy, isn’t it?”
Sorry, no – not creepy. Stupid. You’re confusing a sentient painting with some tawdry sub-Halloween-level balls.
All of the characters’ entirely blasé approach to the supernatural might enable the plot to wallop on, but it made me want to chuck this finely plotted, beautifully written little novel across the room in irritation.
Still, a quick read by a master craftsman which can be savoured for the quality of the writing alone.
Author Bio – Christopher Bowden lives in south London. He is the author of six colour-themed novels, which have been praised variously by Andrew Marr, Julian Fellowes, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Shena Mackay.
Social Media Links – https://www.facebook.com/christopher.bowden.90
Website – http://www.christopherbowden.com/