“Searching for Von Honningsbergs” by Rowena Wiseman is a travel novel, a journey through time and space but also through personal growth and development. The first person narrator, an unappreciated art gallery employee named Lawson, is clearly not the same person depicted in the novel as the one who is telling the story. Years have passed, and the events related have had a major impact on him. He tells the story on two simultaneous tracks – the linear track of things as they happened, and the series of paintings he has created based on those events. As we move from one place to another, from Australia to Ukraine to Siberia to China to Brazil and back again to China, and as we meet important characters along the way, these places and people become the subject of the paintings described to us. But the art came after, and we discover that Lawson himself only began to learn to become an artist later in the book. The tale hangs on the framework of an assignment to travel about and collect some important “lost” works of a world-famous painter, Von Honningsberg, but that artist’s work is far less interesting and important than the narrator’s own.
Lawson’s paintings do not so much depict the people and places themselves as their personal meaning to Lawson, and this relates to a central theme throughout the book. Indeed, the novel begins with a lecture from Lawson to an art gallery manager about the superficiality of the labels you see alongside paintings in galleries. These texts cannot tell us what the painting meant to the artist, only the dates and names and some generalized academic themes, which miss the point entirely, according to Lawson. Art IS personal meaning or else it is nothing more than illustration, mere appearances. The deceptive nature of surface impressions is also a strong theme throughout. Again and again Lawson characterizes the people he meets from his first impression, and only later discovers his error. The “fire dancer” is not at all a fire dancer. She only happened to be doing that one day. The Ukrainian in Siberian seems to be quite a disloyal person, a thief who ran in the night, then later seems the opposite, extremely loyal to certain objects, persons and feelings, only to turn around again. He is not what he appears, nor is anyone, really. The people who seem crazy and dangerous in China turn out to have very good reasons for their rage and anguish. The character Lawson is like a child drifting through these events, but the narrator Lawson has delved deeper and seen farther. We take some of these lessons with us when we read this exceptional book.
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