Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Tea Cooper has been perfecting her craft as an author of historical fiction novels for over ten years now, and with The Girl in the Painting we see it all come together in brilliant fashion. The story follows a woman, Elizabeth Quinn, and her adopted daughter, Jane Piper, as they embark on a quest to discover long-hidden truths after the former of the two experiences a traumatic episode at a local exhibition.
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Tea Cooper Resurrects an Old Mystery
The concept of a person’s past is an immensely fascinating and paradoxical phenomenon: on one hand, it technically doesn’t exist anymore, but on the other, I think we can all recall times when it reared its ugly head to our detriment years, if not decades later. In The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper, we are introduced to two women who embark on a faraway adventure in search of answers to a mystery from the deep past, brought to life again by an unexpected occurrence.
The novel takes us to Australia at the turn of the 20th century, starting in 1906 to be more precise. We are introduced to Michael and Elizabeth Quinn, a couple who have managed to prosper in pretty much every way imaginable, except when it comes to children. They are no strangers to hardship, having arrived on the continent penniless back in their days, and now they look out for those less fortunate than themselves.
One day, they decide to adopt the nine-year-old Jane Piper, an orphan with a muddled past but remarkable aptitudes for learning, and especially mathematics. They take it upon themselves to further her schooling, and over the years they grow closer as a true family, with Jane even playing an increasingly important role in the family business.
However, nothing perfect lasts forever, and as they are attending an exhibition at the local museum in town, Elizabeth suffers a traumatic experience, reacting with sheer horror to a certain painting. Since then, her grip on reality has started to loosen, and it becomes obvious something in her past has caught up to her, something even she was unaware of.
In hopes of restoring Elizabeth’s good health, Jane sets out to unravel the mystery behind the whole occurrence, and in the process both women become entangled in a story spanning numerous continents and decades. From the Australian gold fields and its inhospitable outback to the sophisticated modern architecture of Sydney, they get to see it all as they inch closer to the promise of peace and closure.
Breathing in the Australian Life with The Girl in the Painting
Historical fiction novels come in plenty of varieties in regards to how they choose to balance between the two words defining the genre. There are those who only use a historical setting as a vague basis for their fictional endeavours, and then there are authors such as Tea Cooper who make it the centrepiece of their novel.
I’ll begin by saying this is definitely the kind of novel which takes its time in advancing the story, especially during the earlier chapters when we’re still getting acquainted with the setting and the characters… and rest assured, the author spared no expense in being as thorough as possible. While there aren’t too many people for us to follow, Michael, Elizabeth and Jane have more than enough mystery and history between them to fill the pages.
As we learn about their biographies, how they arrived from Ireland with nothing to their names, the sacrifices they made in the name of a better life and the kind of people they became as a result, we also learn about Australia at the turn of the 20th century. As someone rather unfamiliar with the topic I thought it was an absolutely fascinating survey of a time and place where I’m certain many captivating stories lay in wait for someone to find them.
There is absolutely zero doubt in my mind that Tea Cooper was extremely diligent with her research about this historical period, and the curious little details she integrates in numerous scenes testify to the impressive depth of her knowledge. I never encountered any particulars which broke my sense of immersion, and I’m certain those more familiar with the time period will also share my opinion.
Additionally, I’d also like to mention the author’s easygoing style when describing historical details and educating the reader through her portrayal of the past. She has a remarkable ability for being both concise and evocative, to the point where even these passages which didn’t advance the plot in any way still retained a tangible page-turning quality to them. In other words, the history is no less fascinating than the fiction.
The Winding Roads of the Past
Like I mentioned above, the beginning is where the plot comes to a halt the most often so as to allow Tea Cooper to establish the setting and introduce the characters properly, along with their biographies and everything we could ever want to know about them. As the story progresses though, there is an increasing amount of emphasis placed on advancing the plot, and it too has a few things to offer.
To begin with, the principal mystery for the first half of the book, that is to say, Elizabeth’s real identity and the possibility of her own past having been somehow hidden from her, is an excellent hook which fulfilled its duty, forcing me to turn one page after the next in search of the resolution. It’s even dropped on the reader in memorable fashion with Elizabeth’s reaction to the titular painting at the exhibition.
The further I got into The Girl in the Painting, and this was especially noticeable after the halfway point, the more the Tea Cooper seemed to take liberties with the narrative thread surrounding the mystery. I started seeing a few more red herrings, a couple of storylines which didn’t seem to amount to very much, as well as a few general oddities which made me question as to whether or not a character would really act in such a way.
However, my qualms are minor and moments which betrayed the rest of the experience were very few and far in-between. As a matter of fact, there are many more occasions when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn while still remaining completely sensical and compatible with its own internal logic, which isn’t something any author could pull off.
Ultimately, the resolution did leave me feeling satisfied, having a heartwarming effect while tying up all the loose ends, or I suppose I should say, all the important ones. In a time when tragic endings are becoming the expected norm, I’m all too happy to see a legitimately inspiring conclusion, one which plays its small part in helping us restore our collective faith in humanity.
|384||Thomas Nelson||March 9 2021||978-0785240334|
The Final Verdict
The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper is a top-notch historical novel taking us to the underexplored Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, embarking us on a mystery full of winding paths and populated by extremely well-defined characters and plenty of illuminating details and expositions about the past.
If you’re looking for a historical fiction novel which combines a rich detailing of the past with a gripping investigation and is weaved together with a smooth and pleasant prose, then I strongly recommend you give this novel a look.
Tea Cooper is an author specializing in historical fiction and Australian contemporary literature, a specialty she took up after having worked as a teacher, journalist, and even a farmer. In 2012 she published her debut novel, Tree Change, and in 2015 her book The Horse Thief won the Australian Romance Readers Award for Favourite Cover. Some of her other works include The Girl in the Painting, The Cartographer’s Secret and The Woman in the Green Dress.