The protagonists in Salley Vickers’s novels tend to be either artists or in some way transformed by works of art. Her debut, Miss Garnet’s Angel (2000), centres on a series of paintings featuring the Archangel Raphael that Miss Garnet stumbles across in a Venetian church. In Vickers’s 2018 novel The Librarian, the main character is a champion of children’s literature. The Cleaner of Chartres (2012) sets cleaning – one of the most everyday tasks – against a backdrop of breathtaking architecture. Art in her novels fulfils several functions: it is therapeutic, an escape, a window onto other ways of being and a means of understanding both oneself and the wider world.
All three women at the heart of Vickers’s new novel are arty in their own way. Nan Appleby is a published poet, writing under the pseudonym A G Nunne, ‘an admired if obsessively reclusive poet’. Minna Dyer is determined to read Proust, having already worked her way through the great Russian writers (‘She was no judge, but Tolstoy she reckoned could do with some editing’). Meanwhile, the well-off Blanche Carrington decides to take a trip to Paris, where she becomes transfixed by da Vinci’s painting in the Louvre of St Anne with her daughter Mary and her grandson Jesus.