Book Review: Smoke Portrait

Smoke PortraitI’m not really certain how I came across this book? It must have been through some kind of search on Goodreads? But as it was described as being partially told in correspondence I’m sure it’s why I jumped all over it. Wherever it was that I found out about it,  I normally keep my Bibliocommons open to see if the WPL has it. Hey! Sure enough, there it was!

Smoke Portrait builds quite slowly, but keep with it because in the same way, it slowly draws you in with its wonderful character development and an intriguing story. Smoke Portrait turned in to a lovely read. It’s quiet, endearing and an interesting coming of age tale, for both Marten, the 13-year-old boy and Glen, the 24-ish year old woman.

From Goodreads: Told partially in correspondence, this literary novel is a tragic tale of love, loss, and the lies we choose to believe
Set in 1936 in Belgium and Ceylon, this story traces the development of an unlikely friendship between a young Belgian teenager, Marten Kuypers, and Glen Phayre, a young English woman in her 20s. Glen has left England to live with her aunt, who runs a tea plantation in Ceylon and fills her days with good works, among them the task of writing letters to a Belgian prisoner. But the letters go astray, and are received instead by Marten, eager to discover the wide world outside his small village, and desperately missing his older brother Krelis, who has vanished and is presumed dead. Marten decides to reply to Glen in the guise of the grown-up prisoner she is expecting to hear from, and as their correspondence evolves, they both assume identities that, while false in many respects, remain true to their own selves in other ways. Gradually they come to depend on each other, and their pen friendship proves to be crucial when events in their real lives take on a darker, more threatening significance in the shadow of the impending world war.

Marten is reeling from the disappearance of his older brother Krelis. Lost and fighting despair, Marten finds a letter that has been incorrectly addressed but starts him on a path of discovery and fantasy as well as false identity. Glen Phayre is a young English woman that responds to an advertisement requesting people to write to prisoners as a way to educate and help enligthen their prison lives.  She was supposed to be writing to a Pieter van Houten, but incorrectly spelled the city to where it was to be sent. Instead, Marten receives it. Intrigued, this 13-year-old-boy assumes the identity of Pieter and begins a compelling correspondence between the two.

I was sad when the letter ended: I didn’t want to leave that place, which was so strange and beautiful. But, more importantly, I didn’t want her to leave me. My world – this world of crumbling corners, the empty mill silhouetted against a grey sky – was not magical. I folded the letter carefully into its envelope, and wondered what I could possibly write in reply.

Marten is living in the shadow of his older brother, but also in a fog that surrounds his disappearance. It is the time leading up to WWII and in his small town in Belgium a group of boys are organizing themselves in to a junior wing of the Vlaams National Verbond (VNV). Marten joins and becomes more and more involved in the initiations of its group members and the growing organized hate towards the Jews. But Marten also finds himself taken with the leader of the group, in what grows to become an idolized replacement to his missing brother.

Glen has left her traditional and staid life in the UK to visit and help her aunt in Ceylon. Here, she meets and falls in love with an Indian man. The only person that is aware of this relationship is Marten, or Pieter as Glen assumes she is writing to. She feels a safety and confidence in Pieter.

Glen: That voice, simple and halting had become an anchor to her. it was the voice of someone who was even more lost than she was.

As Marten becomes more involved in a group intent on hate and as Glen realizes she is pregnant, the need for their shared correspondence deepens. Towards the end of the book, Glen discovers the true identity of her correspondent and Marten reveals more about himself than just his name. What was wonderful about this story was the slow realization or coming of age of the two characters. It was a calm and assured read. The end wraps up quite nicely when the daughter of Glen travels to meet with Marten and share stories of Glen.  3.5 stars = a very good read.