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(Image: Archi Banal)
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BooksDecember 17, 2023

Put a spell on you: a review of Vanishing Point by Andrea Hotere

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Lucy Black reviews a debut mystery novel based on the painting Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez.

Of all the art that you have seen, which consumes you? Which art hangs on the wall of a gallery or private room and calls to you?  Which painting lures you in so much that you lose track of time and yourself?

Andrea Hotere’s debut novel, The Vanishing Point, centres on one important piece of art and the way the painting has put a spell over her main characters and seemingly over Hotere herself. The painting is Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, one of the most written-about works of art in history. In her author’s note Hotere uses the term ekphrasis – a work of art based on another work of art, and that is what The Vanishing Point is, a novel based on a painting.

Andrea Hotere is Dunedin born and lives in Auckland, she has worked as a historical researcher and as a journalist and from the beginning it is clear that The Vanishing Point is not a lighthearted tale but a heavily researched deep dive into the painting’s world. Within the story the reader finds ever increasing spirals of other inspiration; like the way another Spanish master, Pablo Picasso was inspired by Velázquez and how French composer Maurice Ravel wrote his pavane for the dead princess featured in the painting. Each page unlocks more influences and ideas.

In an interview with Art Now NZ Hotere referred to the in-depth research process as a trip down a rabbit hole; and the reading experience is similar. The story begins in London in 1991 where the heroine Alex is studying art history and grieving her mother who passed away in a car accident when Alex was a child. Like her mother before her, Alex is fascinated by Las Meninas and is compelled to uncover the painting’s mysteries. She suspects the painting is cursed and comes to believe that her mother’s attempt to try to uncover the curse led to her demise. The chapters of Vanishing Point switch between Alex in 1991 and the key figure in Las Meninas – The Infanta Margarita – beginning in 1656 when Margarita is six and ending as she dies young in 1673. 

Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez (via Wikimedia Commons)

Many historical novels have revolved around a work of art and the figures in them but The Vanishing Point also allows the reader insight into other key players of the Spanish court, with chapters told by seemingly immortal villains who may be supernatural beings:  centuries later they are still trying to protect the secrets of the 17th century Spanish royals. The intrigue, supernatural aspects, adventure quests and philosophy make The Vanishing Point more than a historical novel and into what Hotere calls “art-historiographic metafiction, with elements of a mystery/thriller.”

The more traditional and straightforward part of The Vanishing Point is the story of Margarita living in the 17th century. Hotere cleverly shows how small and constrained Margarita’s life is amongst the large rooms of the Spanish court. Life carries on around the Infanta, and she is doomed to be a still, small light at the centre, unable to move because of the literal cage of skirts she must wear. Reviewers have compared Andrea Hotere’s writing to that of AS Byatt and Maggie O’Farrell and these historical passages are those most similar to other historical novels. The detail that Hotere goes into is perfectly balanced, just enough to invite a clear idea of what life may have been like; the food, the clothing, the beds, the art studio and of course the paintings are carefully described. 

The young princess Margarita is, at times, the heir to the throne, at times, the only healthy child, and she is always an achingly lonely, rule-bound princess. Velázquez works as the court artist and as the King’s commissioner, he is close to the power but not wielding it. He works in his studio quietly painting his reality of the troubled figures around him: the sickly guilt-ridden King, the grieving Queen, her bitter and conniving right-hand man De Nieto. These characters are all based on true historical figures. Diego Velázquez had sympathy and respect for the lesser known members of the court; the children, the ladies in waiting, the fools and the animals.

The passages of The Vanishing Point set in 1991 (disturbingly this is also probably classed as historical: feel old?) are far more dynamic and fast paced. Young Alex is an every girl, living in London, running around the city with fashion mishaps, bosses to impress, friends to drink wine with and young men to crush on. While Margarita is still, Alex careens from one idea to another: into a gallery, onto a train, off to another part of Europe. In 1991 there is no time to linger, Alex is digging notebooks from attics, meeting with art historians, calling her distant father and trying to get to the bottom of the research her mother started. Hotere cleverly chose this time period pre-internet, pre common use of cellphones, pre information overload: it would have been a very different novel if Alex was working in 2023. 

Because all of Alex’s time is taken up yearning for more information and burning with desire to be vindicated, it is hard to get a clear picture of who Alex is. We see a young woman driven by her impulses and constantly pivoting but it is hard to get beyond that. Muddying the waters for Alex and the reader is an experience she has in an art gallery as an adolescent, when she first sees Las Meninas. It’s a frightening turn in which she steps into the painting and loses track of where she is and what is going on. Margarita haunts Alex in a way that she perhaps also haunted Picasso, Ravel and others: the spell of the painting that Hotere tries to pull the reader into. 

These two viewpoints, Alex and Margarita, may have been enough but they are two lines and not the vanishing point. If you are to look at Las Meninas you will find the vanishing point is at the doorway where José de Nieto is caught mid step. Without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say, this is where Hotere’s impish and imaginative side comes into play. De Nieto and his cohort bring the chaos and camp to an otherwise more obvious novel. These villains introduce the revolting underworld of the Spanish court and tease the reader with imagery of the illuminati, demons, soul stealers and eroticism. Where Alex and Margarita are clean young women just trying to uncover the truth and get by, De Nieto is a dirty ancient figure trying to hide the truth by any means. These fantastical passages are at times quite jarring to the storyline: you may find yourself rushing through them in hopes of getting back to Alex’s quest or Margarita’s quiet rooms. Some of the villains’ methods are hard to stomach and at times the fantasy can border on pulpy, stepping away from the high art and into True Blood territory. Like Las Meninas itself, The Vanishing Point has a lot going on. 

As the novel progresses so does the power of the spell and the plot becomes more frantic and hazy. 

“‘Velázquez paints the truth,’ said Margarita. ‘He tells me so.’

Luisa placed a hand over her mouth.

‘Our artist must watch out,’ Pepito went on, ‘for there are those who are afraid of the truth. Those who resent his influence – his friendship – with the King; to them he will never escape his humble origins, never be a true noble. They love that his duties give him less and less time to create masterpieces; that he is owed’ more than a year’s worth of wages but can say nothing. De Nieto …’

Luisa nodded. ‘Aye, De Nieto is jealous. It’s eating him up …’

Pepito clutched at the front of his jerkin, scrunching the fabric between his fingers. ‘It devours him’

Luisa rolled her eyes and sighed. ‘I am wary of him,’ she whispered. ‘His eyes are blank. There is nothing there’ 

Margarita wondered what Luisa meant. She abhorred De Nieto, and she had sensed he did not like Velázquez.

‘Ah yes: as we know, the keeper of the royal tapestries likes to weave in more ways than one. Duran is encouraging his … spinning. It’s the jealousy which has made him a husk of himself’ said Pepito.” (from page 69 of The Vanishing Point)

In painting Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez brandished his wand like mahlstick and is cajoling Hotere, Alex, Margarita and the reader into further mystery. In Hotere’s novel, we tumble through grand houses, nunneries, trapdoors and dark alleys; the pace can be intense and slightly sick making. The interconnected stories can be a knotty mess: this can be frustrating but it’s also fascinating. Read this quickly, let yourself be taken under the spell, lose yourself in the lines of novel / the painting / the doorway that Andrea Hotere has opened. 

The Vanishing Point by Andrea Hotere ($38, Penguin) is available to purchase at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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