CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 1 . . . . September 8, 2017
When 12-year-old Annie finds an old painting in the attic, her mom isn't pleased. But Annie, who loves art, not school, wants to see the painting's Newfoundland landscape in real life. After her mom has a car accident that leaves her in a coma in the hospital, Annie is called into the painting by a girl her age named Claire. Claire is certain that Annie is the ghost of her little sister, also named Annie, who was hit by a car at the age of four. Annie is pretty sure that Claire is only a dream. In sections that alternate between the girls' perspectives, two presents unfold: Claire's lonely life with her painter mother, Maisie, in the lighthouse at Crooked Head, Newfoundland, 1978; and Annie's home with her professor mother and doctor father in Toronto, Ontario, 2004. Claire is increasingly desperate to escape Maisie and Newfoundland and wants Annie to help, while Annie worries as the days pass and her mother, Cathleen, now known to Annie as her friend Claire, doesn't wake. After Claire finally breaks with Maisie, and Annie, independently, witnesses the fatal accident that estranged them, Annie decides, with the help of elderly neighbour Mrs. Silver, that the only way to bring her mother back is to reunite her family so that Claire/Cathleen and Maisie can finally unburden themselves of guilt and mutual misunderstanding over little Annie's death.
The plot is largely linear, despite involving two different decades. Much of the narrative focuses on the times when Annie crosses into Claire's world. As the tension mounts and the girls' goals begin to differ, their first-person perspectives give increasing attention to their independent lives rather than focusing on the times when they are together. Annie's narrative takes place over a few days, perhaps a week, while Claire's takes place over most of a year.
At first, Annie and Claire seem very much like each other: both are lonely, with mothers who do not see eye to eye with them and are growing up in a home environment that is well-meant but not suited to their best welfare. Increasingly, the narrative contrasts the two so that it is not wholly a shock to discover that Claire, who gets along so well with and adores Annie, is also the mother who frets over Annie's mediocre grades and does not encourage her love of art. The narrative delicately touches on how loving parents may fail their children, and how the home environment and pursuits that animate and allow one person to prosper may frustrate and hem in another. The narrative is more direct in its examination of miscommunication and family tensions and, through Claire's reactions to a series of paintings of Annie that Maisie plans to exhibit, draws in realistic detail two people who have lived through the same tragedy but whose needs and means of coping are not only divergent but, at times, conflicting. Neither character is saddled with the ultimate responsibility for Annie's death – nor does the narrative choose a side between Claire's love of school and Annie's indifference to anything but art and art scholarship – instead, both are shown struggling with their own sense of guilt over the accident as they waver between blaming themselves and blaming the other.
The presence of Mrs. Silver in Annie's present day remains something of a mystery. No one but Annie can see Mrs. Silver who vanishes into thin air much as Annie does from Claire's lighthouse. Much as Maisie cannot see Annie even when she looks directly at her, the adults in Annie's life do not see Mrs. Silver and suspect Annie of talking aloud to herself. The reader is left to wonder if Mrs. Silver is Claire's long-deceased Nan or perhaps one of the two girls in the future who is revisiting the past at this crucial moment, as Annie, herself, did with Claire.
In The Painting, the mounting tension between Claire and Maisie is painfully believable. Annie's relationship with her dad is less developed; it is also less pertinent to the plot and the fractions that divide three generations of women in their family. The growth and development of the characters is credible as are their frequent misunderstandings and – despite everything – deep affection for one another.
Janet Eastwood is a graduate of UBC's Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program. She now works as an editor in BC's Lower Mainland.