Reviewed by Adèle Geras
First, full disclosure. Susan Hill, whose Long Barn Books has published this novel, sent me a copy as a gift. She had no idea that I was going to write a review, but sent it because she knew I admired the writer.
The mask on the elegant cover of Colouring In is a reference to the work done by one of the main characters. Isabel Grant is a very gifted and sought- after maker of masks. She and her husband, Dan, live a pleasant and affluent life in West London. Dan works in import/export as his profession, but he is a frustrated playwright and spends much time and energy in writing plays that are never performed. While he was at Oxford, something he wrote was produced and performed very successfully indeed and he has spent his time since those days trying to replicate that achievement.
The Grants have a daughter of fourteen, called Sylvie. They also have a devoted cleaner, Gwen, who comes several times a week to look after the family. They are all very fond of Gwen and she is almost part of the family. Other main actors in the story are Bert, Dan’s friend from his youth, and Carlotta, Isabel’s friend whom she loves but who also causes her much irritation and annoyance.
The novel is narrated from these six viewpoints and it’s fascinating to see the unfolding of events from different perspectives. The plot (and there IS a plot…you are anxious to find out several things as you read) hinges round the feelings that the protagonists develop for one another. Lust flares, love is born, goodness is rewarded. Characters who’ve behaved a little badly suddenly start behaving differently and better. Those who have seemed selfless turn out to have hidden depths of selfishness, and every turn of events is accompanied by revelations of one kind and another. Bert and Dan, Isabel and Carlotta perform a kind of dance around one another and Gwen and Sylvie observe and interact with the others in interesting ways. Gwen’s story, which is a tale within a tale, takes us away from a life of expensive wines and middle-class luxury and into a life where a coat from M&S is the height of extravagance.
It is to Huth’s great credit that she makes us care about every one of the protagonists, even while she’s exposing their flaws. She is so good at depicting their lives that I felt I knew their houses as well as I know my own. Best of all, though, were the descriptions of the mask-making. I could have done with even more detail, because I’m very fond of such things, but even with what Huth has provided with enormous economy, I could visualize Isabel’s studio and the beautiful things she had made and was making. It goes without saying that the masks are also metaphorical. Every character puts on a kind of disguise at some point in the story. They can say one thing while meaning another; pretend to be kind and loving while feeling irritation, for instance, as Isabel does at several points in the story.
One of the great pleasures of novel-reading is being able to share lives other than our own. I felt completely at home with Angela Huth’s imaginary well-heeled Londoners and hope very much that she’s preparing a sequel…there is at least one loose end which I’d like to see tied up in a satisfactory way. I trust I won’t have too long to wait…
Adèle Geras is the author of numerous successful novels for adults and children. She blogs at The History Girls, a joint blog written by authors of historical fiction and fantasy history for Junior (middle Grade), YA and adult readers.
Angela Huth, Colouring in (Long Barn Books: Ebrington, 2015). 978-1902421261, 384pp., paperback original.
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