by James King
ISBN: 1896951570

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A Review of: Transformation
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

Daniel Home, the protagonist of James King's new novel Transformations, is a medium. He is described simply as "a man who communicates with the dead and gives their feelings flesh and blood." The same might be said for the writer of biographies and historical novels. King, who teaches in the Department of English at Hamilton's McMaster University, has written acclaimed biographies of, among others, Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Herbert Read, and William Blake. Although he has turned to fiction in recent years, he has not abandoned the territory of the past. All of his three novels are concerned with the real lives of notorious figures: Faking's protagonist, Thomas Wainewright, was a Regency forger and possible serial killer; Blue Moon's Evelyn Dick was convicted of murdering her husband and son in 1940s Hamilton; and Transformations, King tells his readers, is "very loosely based" on events in the life of Daniel Home, the Victorian medium who was publically denounced as a fraud by Robert Browning. In his latest novel, King retraces some of the thematic territory he explored in Faking-serial murder, collecting, and the question of authenticity-while creating a narrative that combines a gripping mystery with a glimpse into the assumptions, obsessions, and ideosyncrasies of the Victorian Age, which one character describes as "an age in which the authentic has become confused with the fake."
After a preliminary chapter which assures the reader that the "strange congruencies, unlikely associations, murky circumstances, and dark footpaths" that will follow are "the stuff of real life" and not mere "literary contrivances," King constructs a threefold mystery narrative-equal parts serial killer whodunit, art-world intrigue, and supernatural mystery-that raises questions about the relationship between reality and contrivance, life and art, the authentic and the illusory. Interestingly, the narrative of Home, whose public denunciation by Browning is the ostensible heart of King's novel, is quickly overshadowed by the stories of three fictional characters-Julian Wilson, Miranda Osborne, and Lady Rhonda-who witness Browning's public shaming of Home. Each of these characters, like Home, has a personal interest in the issue of falsification. Julian Wilson is a painter who, after judging himself a mere "imitator of others," becomes an art dealer, skilled at identifying forgeries; in the wake of Browning's accusation of Home, he is hired to verify whether a painting-of Leda's deception by Jupiter, who seduces her in the guise of a swan-is in fact a lost Leonardo. Woven into the narratives of Home and Wilson are those of Miranda Osborne, obsessed with her collection of silver pieces, and schooled in distinguishing "the real from the sham," and Lady Rhonda, who, in regards to her extensive collection of porcelain figurines, opines that fakery is "of little consequence," asserting that "if I loved an object, I would not really care who manufactured it." The implication in these interwoven narratives is that authenticity is determined by the heart's response to an object, and not by that object's origin. Love, for a person, object, or ideal, is the one thing that cannot be falsified, at least not to the one who feels the emotion. This point is unnecessarily underscored, however, by what is one of the book's few false notes-the chapter titles, each of which incorporates the word "heart", as in "Broken Hearts", "A Heart in the Right Place", and so on. Surely the fact that all of the murder victims are stabbed through the heart is sufficient emphasis.
The most intriguing element of the novel is the thread concerning the relationship between deception and the creation of art. Certainly, the artist who draws upon the past for his or her inspiration must necessarily alter the "facts" in the name of art. Is all art then inherently deceptive? asks the novel. Are all artists fakers? In his exploration of these questions, King introduces the figures of two "real" artists: poet Robert Browning, whose best-known poems ("The Ring and the Book", "My Last Duchess") are reimaginings, and therefore falsifications, of historical events; and, more briefly, Civil War photographer Timothy O'Sullivan, who, when accused by Home of "faking history" because he moved bodies around on the battlefield in order to get more arresting compositions, replies that, while this may be true, it is rendered inconsequential by his commitment to his art: "I'm an artistI've got to get the best possible picture."
Ironically, it is this confident disdain for accuracy in the pursuit of authenticity that King lacks. While the story is thematically intriguing, the mysteries are skilfully devised, and the historical details are convincingly drawn (predictably for such an accomplished biographer), the book's main weakness is the narrative voice, which is oddly detached and cold. King's fondness of exposition, which must serve him well as a biographer, robs the novel of, oddly enough, heart. While events in the characters lives are swiftly sketched, rendering years of living in a few skillfully turned phrases, the characters never truly come alive on the page. Home, the Brownings, and others are "authentic" in their grounding in historical reality; however, they lack the credibility of fully-drawn, feeling, breathing, fictional characters. To become the first-rate novelist he can be, James King needs to free himself from the demands of accuracy. This would help him to better transform characters into authentic, flesh and blood human beings on the page.

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