What a challenging novel this is. Readers familiar with the author, via his prize-winning collection of autobiographical essays, The Idea of Home (2005), will know that he never chooses the easy option as a writer. The Remnants’ starting point is a manuscript written by an Australian art historian and discovered after his death by his son. The historian claims to have discovered a series of lost paintings by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo—Tuscan Italy. The manuscript involves not only Renaissance Italy but post-Revolutionary Russia, due to the father’s relationship with Anna, an émigré who claims to have nursed the poet Osip Mandelstam in his final days. Other characters are also permitted their own voice, including Anna’s son Kolya, husband Sura and lover Evgeny. Interrupting the story’s flow are frequent commentaries by the art historian’s son as he strives to understand his father and make sense of the increasingly disparate series of events he discovers, and footnotes that, for me at least, were one complication too many in an already intricately constructed and beguiling tale. John Hughes requires his readers to concentrate, to retain several plotlines in their head, to recognise each change of voice, occasionally identified only by an initial and to remain focussed on the book. The rewards are certainly there for those who persevere.
Max Oliver has just completed his 55th year in the book trade. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.