Though popularly known as the City of Light, Paris can be a pretty dark place if you are alone and short of money. Maud Heighton finds herself in this predicament in Imogen Robertson’s new novel, “The Paris Winter.”
It’s 1909 and Maud has managed to escape an unhappy home life to study art in Paris. But, although she has pared her expenses to the bone, she is struggling financially and dreads the hunger and hardship of the coming winter. So when she is offered a cushy job as the companion to an opium-addicted young woman and her rich brother, she is unable to resist. However, all is not as it seems, and her apparent good fortune leads her into a darker world of betrayal, crime and revenge. In the process, she finds a hidden steel in her outwardly meek respectability, and makes some surprising friendships.
This book, her fifth historical fiction title, marks something of a departure for Imogen Robertson. Her Crowther and Westerman detective stories, set in the late 18th century, have won her quite a following. Certainly crime plays a major part in this new one, but more from the victim’s perspective. The identity of the perpetrator is never in any doubt, and the honey trap is set up so well that the reader, like Maud herself, is lulled into a false sense of security and it comes as a real shock. We can completely sympathise with the victim’s sense of betrayal and determination to get even, though at times we may fear for her state of mind.
The Belle Epoque was so stuffed with famous characters that the temptation to name drop must be strong. Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Susan Valadon all get a mention, the latter as more than just a cameo role. But the most interesting characters are imaginary, including a Russian princess trapped in privilege and protocol, a tough-cookie, art-collection American countess, a streetwise artist’s model and a philanthropist running a rescue centre for respectable young women at risk of falling through society’s cracks. The last is based on a fascinating character, Ada Leigh, who deserves to be much better known. Stumbling on her short autobiography was a real stroke of luck for Robertson when she was researching the book – read about it on “The History Girls” here.
This period is so well covered in both fiction and non-fiction (not to mention the cinema) that one might think there are no new angles left on it. But the catastrophic floods of 1910 are a relatively unexplored episode of Parisian history, and Robertson works them into the tale’s climax to great effect. It’s never laboured, but there is a real sense of something dark always threatening to burst through the city’s glittering shell.
What I liked best about this book was that the narrative method is fully integrated into the character development. Maud is an artist, and she sees the world in terms of shape and perspective, tone and colour. It’s likely that the misery of her difficult childhood helped to shape her ability to observe the world around her. Throughout the book there are descriptions of the catalogue of an exhibition of anonymous paintings, through 2010, which the reader will recognise as a glimpse into Maud’s inner world and her reflections on the experiences she undergoes. The ending is deeply satisfying on every level. It’s a gripping read, with an intelligence and grit that sets it apart from many fluffier stories of the Belle Epoque.