Headlong by Michael Frayn

Michael Frayn’s The Trick Of It, an unbelievably tiresome tale of academics with personal problems, is one of the few novels I have read and then given away. But you should always be willing to give a fellow another chance, especially when his author photo on the back cover shows such a winning smile, and Spies and Towards The End Of The Morning were so good and therefore…Headlong. headlong Martin Clay is a putative art historian from London, spending a couple of months at his little place in the country to write a book. He is asked by local philistine Tony Churt, who owns the delapidated ‘big house’ up the road, to value a few paintings that have been shut away in the dark, stored in his barn and, in one case, liberally seasoned with sheep’s urine. Martin realises that, while they are mostly rubbish, one of them is actually worth something. More than that, it is by Bruegel and completes a famous 16th century cycle of paintings of the seasons by the Dutch master. Finding and attributing this picture of peasant folk doing their springtime thing will make his reputation and – not unhappily – his fortune. He is convinced that there are signs hidden in the existing works and the newly-uncovered one which have been missed by academics for centuries. Libraries are visited, books are pored over, links and connections are made. At this point, Headlong comes on like an academic version of The Da Vinci Code, albeit by an author who can actually write. All Martin needs is to establish that the canvas is what he thinks it is, sell another of Tony’s drossy paintings for its real value, pocketing an agreed commission and using that to buy the apparently worthless Bruegel from Tony before selling it on at a vast profit…it was never going to end well. In a first-person narrative it is not only the narrator who is cut off from wider reality: as readers, we too are blind to the obvious, which makes the sudden reverses are occasionally stunning, the shock at who is actually fooling whom genuine; uncertainty rules. Fun, in short – even if it is about academics with personal problems again.

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