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The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan

September 11, 2016

Good art can make a person cry; great art can make a person kill.

Paire Anjou came to New York to be an artist, but thus far has only achieved an artist boyfriend—the enfant terrible of the art world, Derek Rosewood. On her way to his show, where his controversial paintings will be on display, Paire sees an older man on the sidewalk, looking into the window of the Fern Gallery, gazing intently at a painting, and sobbing. As Paire approaches him, the man stabs himself in the chest.

The painting that inspired the suicide is a one-off for the gallery—the last-known surviving work of a dissident Chinese artist named Qi. An empress, dressed in red, sits imperiously and stares out at the viewer. Paire is but one of the people who stare back, joined by hundreds, from around the world, flocking to the Fern Gallery to observe and obsess over the Empress. The Empress inspires lust and panic, rage and greed. When Paire starts digging into the backstory of the painting, and its artist, she unravels a tale of profound betrayal and a vengeance that spans generations.

She also sets in motion the painting’s final heist, a swirling morass of bribery, theft, and murder, drawing Paire deeper and deeper into the underside of the art world, where the greatest works inspire the most vicious of crimes.

Having read and enjoyed The Euthanist, I was looking forward to reading Alex Dolan’s new novel.

The Empress is a painting that captivates and almost entrances those who see it.  Paire Anjou is a young woman with a dark past that she is desperate to leave behind, but which haunts her every day. She is in the process of transforming herself from her birth name, Kate Novis, to the more exotic and artistic Paire Anjou, when the book opens.

As she leaves the court with her legal name change secured, she is walking to the Fern Gallery where her boyfriend, Derek Rosewood, has an exhibition of his art due to open.

As she walks up to the gallery, she sees an older man staring at the window, transfixed, where a painting of The Empress, a young Chinese woman, is on display. He drops a pair of glasses and then suddenly takes a knife from his pocket and stabs himself in the heart in front of the painting.

Shocked by the event, and covered in the man’s blood, Paire goes into the gallery and thus begins the start of an obsession with the painting that will take root and alter the course of not just her life, but many others besides.

This is not just a story about the transformative power of art; it goes deeper into what it is that we value and why we do so.

Paire herself tries to stand back from the painting, but as she starts work at the gallery she finds herself drawn in more and more to the artwork, which seeps into her consciousness whether she is awake or asleep.

She becomes obsessed with the painting, and as she learns more about the artist, a dissident painter named Qi, whose other works apparently have been lost for ever, she is unwittingly drawn into a feud that goes back more than four decades when a wealthy American signed a contract with the artist in China and gained the rights to all his paintings. Qi’s The Empress is the last surviving painting and it has an astonishing effect on many who see it.

Dolan weaves his story with the art of a fine tapestry maker. Nothing is quite what it seems and no-one’s motives are as pure as they appear at first glance. There are many twists and revelations as Paire’s obsession with the painting leads to death and destruction.

The Empress of Tempera is a complex story of love, deceit, cruelty and avarice. Ultimately though, this is a story about what values we live by and whether we live up to them.

Well written and thought provoking, this is a book well worth reading.

The Empress of Tempera is published by Diversion Books on 13 Sept. 2016

My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy – this has not influenced my review.

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