Like its well-received predecessor, The Swallow, Charis Cotter’s new novel involves untimely death, ghosts, and two isolated tween girls who narrate the story in rapidly alternating sections. Both of The Painting’s 12-year-old heroines have issues with a temperamentally opposite mother, and these intergenerational relationships form the backbone of the story.
When her mother falls into a coma after a serious car crash, Annie discovers a mysterious painting in her Toronto attic that functions as a portal into the picturesque but lonely Newfoundland lighthouse where Claire lives with her mother, Maisie King. More uncannily still, the picture’s creator turns out to be Maisie herself.
Claire initially takes Annie to be the ghost of her younger sister (also named Annie), who was struck and killed by a car four years earlier while under her care. She blames herself for the tragedy, and suspects her mother does too. She’s aware that, secreted away in her studio, Maisie paints portraits of an imagined future Annie who, unlike bookish Claire, shared her passion for art. Compounding Claire’s misery is the fact that Maisie has denied her request to attend high school in St. John’s, thereby dashing her dream of going to university in Toronto.
Cotter’s intriguing premise goes high-concept when it’s revealed that Annie isn’t Claire’s sister, but her future daughter (Claire is the mom in the coma). When Annie herself makes the connection, she takes the opportunity to mend some generational bridges.
For all its uncanny appearances and dimension bending, however, the novel has surprisingly little suspense. It can feel overly referential, too, as with the coat-filled, wardrobe-like closet that leads into the abandoned “mirror house” attached to Claire’s, or the quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories that, in prefacing each of the book’s 10 parts, force an undue parallel. The Painting bears little resemblance to Carroll’s bizarre, often dark fantasy.
The message here is that the truth will set you free: reconciliation between Claire and her mother will come about if a mutually held secret around the circumstances of the first Annie’s death is acknowledged. The catharsis is convenient but wants for nuance; even readers at the younger end of The Painting’s target audience may find the novel’s ending unconvincingly pat.