Odelle is from Trinidad, living in London in the 1960s, trying to make it as a writer as she makes a living as a clerk in a shoe store. She manages to acquire a position as a typist at an art gallery and is taken under the wing of Marjorie Quick, an executive there. The story shifts to prewar Spain where Olive Schloss, a young woman, falls in love with Isaac Robles, an artist and revolutionary. Isaac and his half-sister Teresa are working as servants to the Schloss family. Olive’s father is a renowned Austrian art dealer, her mother a disturbed British woman. Central to the story is a remarkable painting of a young woman carrying her own severed head while a lion looks on. The two stories merge, of course, as the plot reveals itself.
The author writes with erudition bordering on pretentiousness, but succeeds in giving a credible picture of both settings. The story is engaging the whole way. I listened to the audiobook version. The actress who reads the London portions is excellent, with a wonderfully charming Caribbean accent (when portraying Odelle) and upper class English accent (when portraying Quick or other Brits). On the other side, the actress who reads the Spanish portions is terrible. She can’t act and her English so poor she mispronounces words constantly. Orange rhymes with flange. It’s clear she is a native Spanish speaker. This choice may have provided us with an authentic Spanish accent, but at what price? She sounds like she’s reading to three-year-olds, overacting and reading at a pace designed for a slow-witted Braille transcriber. She’s more than a ham; she’s bacon. I don’t understand the choice since there is very little Spanish in the story, just a few words here and there.
For a long time I had a hard time believing the same author wrote the two threads of the story, the Spanish thread seeming so badly written. It just shows how important the reader is. Despite this drawback, I enjoyed the book. I thought the attempt to create a surprise ending by letting us know that Marjorie Quick had a secret failed, as I was able to guess the secret quite quickly (no pun intended), but the ending was still a mostly satisfying one.