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The Dance of Geometry

by Brian Howell

(The Toby Press, $19.95, 213 pages, hardback.)

There must be something in the Zeitgeist. This is by my count the cover scanthird novel about Vermeer in so many years, following Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (2001). What more can the life of a sixteenth-century Dutch painter tell us in the twenty-first?

In Brian Howell's hands, quite a lot. Firstly, you'd be mistaken in thinking that three novels constitute a subgenre. I've not read the Chevalier or the Vreeland, but by all accounts they are conventionally written and constructed historical novels. Howell's novel is certainly not describable as that. It's a novel that takes a lot of risks, throwing elements of metafiction, postmodernism and even quasi-medieval science fiction into the mix, and makes quite a few demands on the reader. But is it worth the effort? Yes it is.

The Dance of Geometry is divided into three novella-length sections plus a brief epilogue, each using a different narrative method. The first part, "Johannes", is a third-person, past-tense account of Johannes Vermeer's childhood and adolescence, up to the death of his father. Howell attempts to make us see events through his young protagonist's eyes. Great attention is paid to the quality of light and shade and composition. The way that the external world (and its events) impinges on Johannes's consciousness is more important than the events themselves, in particular how they look. Plot takes second place to its protagonist's inner life and development.

The second section, "The Shifting Surface of Desire" takes us forward to the year 1665. This section is a long letter, or secret journal, written by Balthazar de Monconys to his son. It is an account of de Monconys's meetings with the now-adult Vermeer, which leads up to a revelation that has potentially vast consequences for them and all their fellow artists. What this revelation is I'll leave you to discover, but it's one that takes the novel into borderline science fiction. The third section, "Reconstruction" brings us to the present day, and a contemporary artist's commission to fake -- or rather, recreate -- Vermeer's "The Music Lesson". In other words, to get to grips with the master via the exact same media that he used, not just the paint and canvas but his models as well.

The Dance of Geometry is a novel which gets to grips with a lot of ideas on creativity and artistic creation, on media used and methods as they change over time. As I've said before, it's won't be an easy read for many people, but for those prepared to make a little effort will be rewarded by a fascinating journey through time and inner space.

Review by Gary Couzens.

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