James Cahill’s debut novel Tiepolo Blue enjoyed quite a bit of excitement before its release. I picked it up after listening to a podcast interview with the author in which both he and his novel came off as very charming. Interestingly, I have heard little about it since publication and that might just be because many readers – including myself – seem to be on the fence about this book about art, privilege, power and repressed sexuality.
The book open at Cambridge University in the mid-1990s. Professor Don Lamb teaches art history and has not really left Peterhouse College since his arrival there as a shy and impressible undergraduate. Don cannot imagine living anywhere else, doing anything but teaching art history and working on his book about rococo painter Tiepolo. Until a new piece of art arrives right in front of Peterhouse. “Sick bed” is a contemporary installation that contradicts everything Don believes art to be. His aesthetic understanding insulted, he follows an invitation to debate the work on Radio 4, a move that will alter the course of his career and mark the beginning of his psychological unravelling. It becomes obvious that the professor can no longer stay in his position at the university but luckily - or so it may seem – his long-time friend and mentor Val Black has a job lined up for him. Don is to leave his Cambridge home and move to London, to become the director of the Brockwell Collection, a gallery specialised in the classical art Don is so passionate about. Conveniently, he can stay at Val’s Dulwich house, inhabited only by a enigmatic housekeeper Ina and her mysterious mother. Slowly, reluctantly, he settles into his new life, explores his new surroundings, accepts his new role. And then his world is turned upside down again when he meets Ben, a young art student who couldn’t care less about the conservative world Don has emerged from and introduces the inhibited professor to his own. Ben moves into the house and challenges Don’s views over long, wine-fuelled debates, he takes him out of Dulwich into Soho to bars and contemporary exhibitions, he flirts. Don’s sense of self and reality slip away as he follows Ben’s lead and distances himself from what he knows. Gripped by an almost obsessive desire, he loses himself in a boozy whirl of art and bars, hopes and dreams, intrigues and secrets. Until he has to realise that no one, not even himself, is quite who they seem.
I wanted to love this book. And parts of it I really cherished, but others were just paled in comparison. There is a gothic feel to this novel, a dark-academia mood that at times reminded me of The Secret History, though the story is so completely different. Unfortunately, Tiepolo Blue lacks the expert plotting of Donna Tartt’s modern classic. I am not usually a plot-driven reader, but Cahill’s book kept promising more than it was delivering. I waited for twists, turns and big-reveals when for most of the book what I got was discussions of art. These are beautifully written, certainly the terrain on which Cahill feels most comfortable and key part of what makes this book beautiful. Had I come to the novel with a different expectation, these musings on art alone would have made for a wonderful read. Instead they were interrupted by somewhat crude foreshadowing leading to reveals at the end that felt a bit too tidy. It is the messy moments, that are the strength of this book, not the final answers to all questions that have arisen along the way. Don’s struggle against his own desires that finds expression in his rigid conservatism is told with great empathy and generosity. His mental demise and the question of his reliability are intriguing and dark. Often his socially inept behaviour is funny and charming. Wandering around different London neighbourhoods alongside Don and seeing his amazement at the strange new scenes unfolding before his eyes is delightful. The professors disorienting infatuation with the young artist is painfully convincing.
As I write this, I keep changing my mind about this book. The weirdness of the story and its characters was mesmerising while the clumsy plotting was annoying, if not infuriating. So all in all not a perfect novel, but a solid debut that has definitely left me curious to see what Cahill will do next.
published by Sceptre, 2022