“Finn Garvie’s life is one spectacular mess. He spends most of his time fannying around a makeshift Glasgow studio, failing to paint his degree portfolio, while his girlfriend Lizzi treats him like one of her psychology patients, and his best friend Rob is convinced that the tattoos he designs are the height of artistic achievement.
To top it all, Finn is worried that some stinking bastard is hanging around, spying on him, laughing at his cock-ups and eating his leftover curry. Fortunately, he has plenty of techniques to distract him – tackling the church hall renovations with the help of his alcoholic neighbour; pining after Kassia, the splendidly stroppy au-pair; and re-reading that book on Caravaggio, his all-time hero.
Things take a turn for the strange when he finally encounters the person who’s been bugging him, and it seems to be none other than Caravaggio himself…”
Well, this is some book! An audacious plot involving Caravaggio stuck in Purgatory being forced to spend time with a deluded Glaswegian artist who has lost his muse – if you can get your head around that as a concept, you are going to love this book.
The main character of Finn is a complicated central character. Not always likeable, we meet him in the final year of his degree where he believes the only reason that he is failing is that his tutor does not understand him or his work (oh, to have such misplaced confidence in one’s genius!). He becomes obsessed with the artist Caravaggio, whom he believes was similarly misunderstood, and then Caravaggio himself turns up to help Finn out.
This book is a sublime mixture of humour and darkness, grittiness and beauty and is very richly layered and textured. It deals with some complicated issues of mental health, depression, thwarted ambition, complicated relationships and one’s sense of self in a sometimes cruel and uncaring world. Along with Caravaggio, Finn is surrounded by a panoply of characters who support, encourage, analyse and sometimes hinder his progress through the book, and they all have detailed and well-developed personalities and crises of their own which weave and inform the narrative throughout to make a delightful and deeply rewarding read.
The main thing I loved about this book was the language and description. The author grabbed me from page one with her cleverly-worded descriptions and fantastic use of language to describe both the the setting and the characters, internally and externally. The whole look and feel and heart of Glasgow just leapt of the page from the beginning to make a whole character in its own right and the author completely captures the spirit of the place and its people, it was a joy to read and revel in.
The book isn’t perfect. It was a little wordy in places which slowed the pace at times. It is not going to be for everyone, as it is not a light read and takes some focus to get the most out of it. If you are not fond of earthy language or the use of colloquialisms, it will not be your cup of tea and it does deal with some hard and personal problems and has an undercurrent of melancholy beneath the humour. I loved the varied moods of the book personally.
I think this book rewards the effort it takes to read it and the investment of time. I loved the author’s very distinctive voice and quirky mind and will definitely look out for the next thing from her. I really hope this book gets the audience it deserves.
The Backstreets of Purgatory is out now and you can purchase a copy here.
If you would like to see what my blogging colleagues made of the book, the details of the tour stops are below:
About the Author
Helen Taylor is a writer living in France. The Backstreets of Purgatory is her first book.
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