Title: The Artist’s Portrait
Author: Julie Keys
Published: March 26th 2019
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Historical, Mystery
Rating: 4.5 stars
A story about art, murder, and making your place in history.
Whatever it was that drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.
In 1992, morning sickness drives Jane to pre-dawn walks of her neighbourhood where she meets an unfriendly woman who sprays her with a hose as she passes by. When they do talk: Muriel Kemp eyes my pregnant belly and tells me if I really want to succeed, I’d get rid of the baby.
Driven to find out more about her curmudgeonly neighbour, Jane Cooper begins to investigate the life of Muriel, who claims to be a famous artist from Sydney’s bohemian 1920s. Contemporary critics argue that legend, rather than ability, has secured her position in history. They also claim that the real Muriel Kemp died in 1936.
Murderer, narcissist, sexual deviant or artistic genius and a woman before her time: Who really is Muriel Kemp?
Murder, identity, mystery and the art world all combine in The Artist’s Portrait, the debut novel from Australian author Julie Keys. The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the 2017 Richell Prize and following this accolade, it was published by Hachette in March 2019. The Artist’s Portrait is exactly the sort of novel I gravitate towards, and the dual timeline structure utilised by the author works to gently unfurl events from the past in a contemporary setting. At the heart of this enthralling novel is the central mystery surrounding the identity of Muriel Kemp, a figurehead in the 1920s art world.
The Artist’s Portrait opens in the Winter 1914 with the chapter title ‘Tell it like it’s the truth’, which sets the scene for what is to come. With a trip to the Autumn of 1921, the novel then moves to the year 1992. ‘Near misses’, the chapter heading for February 1992, introduces the reader to Jane, a pregnant woman who has an interesting altercation with her neighbour. This experience sets in motion an investigation into the past, with Jane determined to discover what exactly happened to artist Muriel Kemp. This infamous artist and identity in the bohemian set of Sydney in 1920s supposedly perished in 1936. However, Jane’s unusual neighbour has a connection and claim to this figurehead. It is up to Jane to decipher if the legend of Muriel Kemp really did die in 1936.
The Artist’s Portrait immediately piqued my interest, more so due to the structure taken by debut novelist Julie Keys. The past to present and double timeline style of narration was executed beautifully by the author. The Artist’s Portrait offers the perfect balance of mystery and revelation. Keys moves back and forth between 1992 and the world the central character, Muriel Kemp inhabits from the 1920s. The interchanges do merge into one another, but I did not find I was confused, rather, I was consumed by this story and mode of narration.
Keys offsets Muriel Kemp’s historical experiences with Jane, an integral figure of this story in the year 1992. Jane is the key to this shadowy and complicated tale, as she unlocks a vault of secrets from the past. I appreciated how Keys was able to draw a few parallels in the lives of her leads, as both women experience emotional drama during the course of the novel, but in contrasted settings. I also admired much about Jane, she was a fabulous character. Jane’s dogged sense of determination to get the bottom of this mystery and reveal the truth surrounding Muriel Kemp was gallant.
In Muriel Kemp, we are presented with a full bodied character, with a very colorful life to match. Muriel is complex and her life is littered with scandal, ambition, love affairs and murder. The fascinating art world of 1920s Sydney truly comes alive, which is directly attributed to the storytelling abilities of Julie Keys. I really enjoyed being completely submerged during this revolutionary time in our nation’s past.
Keys really allows the reader to savour this intriguing story and the question of identity is carefully withheld until the parting moments of The Artist’s Portrait. I definitely surrendered myself to this book and I found the process of taking off each layer the central mystery presented to be fulfilling. The end left me shocked by Muriel’s true fate, but I won’t say more!
The Artist’s Portrait is a story of reputation, legend and secrecy, which is set to the vibrant art world of decades past. An essential bridge from the past to the present works to unjumble a perplexing question of identity, and it its wake, an enthralling murder mystery novel emerges. The Artist’s Portrait is highly recommended reading and I look forward to future writing by this talented new author.
The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys is published by Hachette Australia. Out now. $32.99
To learn more about the author of The Artist’s Portrait, Julie Keys, visit here.
*Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Artist’s Portrait is book #119 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge