cover image The Optikal Illusion

The Optikal Illusion

Rachel Halliburton. Overlook, $28.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4683-1629-2

Halliburton’s intriguing but patchy debut, based on an episode from the London art world in the 1790s, concerns the mysterious provenance of a Renaissance manuscript and of the young lady peddling it. Ann Jemima possesses a document outlining a technique supposedly employed by Titian, a “knowledge of the science of colour that many thought had been lost to history.” She offers to sell the manuscript to Benjamin West, an expatriate American painter. He’s trying to maintain his tenuous hold on the presidency of the Royal Academy, “a crocodile pit full of opportunists” whose members are always seeking an edge over their fellow artists. Ann is a talented painter in her own right and uses her prowess to demonstrate the technique, first to West and then, after a disagreement over remuneration, to his Royal Academy rivals. Halliburton adroitly satirizes the political machinations of Georgian London and explores issues of authenticity and originality as they relate to artistic creation. The novel teems with historical characters, and occasionally the narrative meanders as a result. There is a tendency to have characters rather stiffly convey political and cultural information, as if they were docents rather than living, breathing figures. Nonetheless, the novel’s expansive, colorful canvas contains many delights, particularly for those interested in art history and theory. (May)