“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
― Edgar Degas
Home, belonging and identity are woven into the fabric of Neil Hegarty’s moving second novel The Jewel that has, at its heart a fictitious Victorian painting of the same name, painted by Emily Sandborne.
After years of being overlooked and now infected with syphilis courtesy of her unfaithful husband, Emily Sandborne is ending her life. However, she is creating one last painting. One that she will literally take with her to the grave.
The colours would blaze, if she had anything to do with it, and leap from the cloth and live and breathe.
They would never be seen: but this was the very least of her worries.
This was the very intention.
Following a well-judged prologue, the narrative turns to three disparate characters whose lives are about to become entangled with this most special painting. Roisin is a curator at the National Gallery in Dublin, preparing to put The Jewel on show for the first time. John, once a successful painter, is now a forger and art-thief tasked with stealing the painting, while Ward – an expert in the theft of art to order – has the job of getting the painting back where it belongs.
The notion of belonging, of home, is at the heart of The Jewel. All three protagonists have found their lives fractured at a crucial point and are unable to move forward or to heal. Roisin and John are each living lives determined by the sudden death of a close relative and by the loss of their family homes.
Ward’s home is the envy of his London friends, his relationship with Martin seemingly settled. Yet this home but is filled with the pain of the abusive relationship in which he finds himself trapped.
All have created a forged life – recreating themselves in an attempt to escape their painful pasts – but by doing so, have lost any idea of who they really are. They find themselves unable to trust or to love fully and as such are stagnating, waiting for their lives to begin again.
Surfaces are important in The Jewel, particularly surfaces created to perpetuate an illusion. For Roisin, surfaces are what she can control – blank walls to place art on – but she knows that any sense of control is tenuous. Her one happy memory – a sunny day in a field with her sister Maeve– is linked forever with the mica glistening in a granite rock, the very same mica that is causing their family home to collapse due to damp.
Memories can be comforting, but they also remind those remembering of greater loss.
her mind flitted again to the sparkling rock in the donkey’s field. How it had gleamed, how warm it had been from hours of soaking in the summer sun, how green the air had been, how gentle the donkey’s brown, lash-fringed eyes had been. How she had laughed and Maeve had laughed, in that bowl of warm green.
Hegarty’s writing is lyrical yet precise, hinting rather than telling with a beautiful descriptive nuance. Colour is vividly portrayed and there are lovely echoes throughout the book (scrambled eggs, an orange cake) that subtly remind the reader just how much these three people have in common.
The Jewel also features some deft characterisation and his three protagonists are wholly convincing and each worthy of a novel in their own right. Hegarty strips back the canvas of their lives to show them in all their vulnerability as they struggle with grief, relationships and fractured families.
Emily Sandborne’s creation of The Jewel was a selfish act. It was art for and of itself. As a tour guide in the National Gallery says,
she was renewing her love for her work, and her faith in – herself, I suppose, in her future
Roisin, Ward and John are all trying to do the same thing. They are all searching for agency, just like Emily Sandborne. Roisin needs to move on from her painful memories, Ward from his gas lighting partner Martin and John needs to find faith once again in the art he creates.
Finding faith and finding meaning is something all humans strive for in individual ways. How the meaning manifests is subjective and like art, all responses are different, but valid.
In this way, throughout the book, descriptions of The Jewel are left vague, allowing the reader to form their own image of this seductive painting.
In his mind’s eye, a pauldron gleamed, black against luminous colour, leaping from the fabric. A horse’s flank gleamed glossy black. A green stone gleamed, an iridescence like a dragonfly’s wings, a lavish beauty of colour.
This is a novel of hope and renewal, of moving on from the past by painting a new canvas, rather than just painting over and over the old. Like the creation of the painting of the title, this is a novel of reclamation, of knowing and owning the past and being able to move on from it. To find a home.
Suffused with colour and emotion as rich as that found in the painting itself, The Jewel is a shimmering gem of a novel, filled with all the pain and all the joy contained in life itself and captured in one captivating work of art.
About the Author:
Neil Hegarty was born in Derry in Northern Ireland, and now lives in Dublin. He holds a doctoral degree in English from Trinity College Dublin, and has written a number of key works in cultural history, including the bestselling Story of Ireland (BBC Books), which accompanies the BBC television series; and London: The Secret History of our Streets (BBC Books).
Neil’s most recent title is Frost: That Was The Life That Was (WH Allen), the authorised biography of the late Sir David Frost.
Neil’s essays, short fiction, reviews and journalism have been published widely, including in the Daily Telegraph, Irish Times, Dublin Review, Stinging Fly, Warwick Review, BBC History and Huffington Post. His radio play The Story of Peggy Mountain was shortlisted for the PJ O’Connor Award.
Neil’s novel Inch Levels was published by Head of Zeus in 2016 and was voted Kerry Group Novel of the Year in 2017.
Neil talks about the genesis of The Jewel in The Irish Times
Read an exclusive extract of The Jewel on the RTÉ website
Find out more about Neil and his work at his website
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