Because Maryann D’Agincourt does not write art fiction in black and white, her fifth offering of the form is the most aptly titled.
“Shade and Light” (Portmay Press) is a bewitchingly simple, modern novel filled with traditional complexities that entwine plot and character as an artist layers colors, crafting a final image to give pause, to make the viewer look deeper and question the depths of the portrait on display.
Gaze into “Shade and Light” and you will see how the personal effects of World War II bind and flow through two families — one so beholden to the other for rescue that the offspring becomes generational. The obligation of the parent is laid on the child.
Should it be? That is a question in one form or another that is central not only to this novel, but D’Agincourt’s oeuvre.
Here, Jenny lives in the darkness of her parents’ war experience in Trieste. Now, living outside of Boston, she is contemplating her young future when the much older Eric enters her life to raise the question of a daughter’s duty — first to family, or first to self?
There is after all a perceived obligation. The family’s wartime debt can be paid by Jenny’s alliance with a man with whom she shares little, in contrast to the attraction she feels to her next-door neighbor, Jonas, and his haunting art.
“Her path in life was very clear. Did she love Eric out of a sense of duty? Whenever she asked herself this question, she understood it was unknowable. Her situation was complex and involved — any attempt to answer such a question would sound insincere and perhaps even false,” D’Agincourt narrates.
It is internal complexities that fuel “Shade and Light” — do not look for adventure here. D’Agincourt — whose unique prose is precise and efficient in an aromatic way that whiffs of translation — makes this point with a conversation between Jenny and her mother.
“American authors favor action; European authors write deep, complex novels, novels that touch the soul,” her mother admonishes.
“Shade and Light” embodies that complexity because, like life, it is textured. Yet, D’Agincourt tells us, it is through texture that clarity can be achieved.
This is the lesson Jonas learns after a lifetime of struggling to capture Jenny on canvas.
“Recently, he’d come across the sketch he had begun of Jenny that had turned out to be Belinda, his aunt. It struck him he’d done the drawing as if he’d been imagining Jenny in a stark light, not through shadow — that had been a mistake. … Surprisingly it had taken him years to realize.”
D’Agincourt condenses those years in “Shade and Light.” The lessons of a lifetime are offered in trade for a few hours spent gazing at the strokes of the novelist’s brush. The deal is a fair one.