Reviewed by Samantha Hui
Lai captures the intersectionality of art, feminism, and environmentalism in this moving debut novel.
Landscapes asks us to look directly at the world we’re in. In some cases, to internalize the violence we have become numb to.
“Sometimes, after reading the news, my instinct is to cover my eyes and ears and shut myself from the world, because the stories demand too much of me. What is the adequate response to the affliction and death of so many living beings?”
Mornington Hall, once built to showcase a wealthy man’s opulence, is now a home to refugees and in a state of disrepair after earthquakes, floods, and termites threaten to destroy the building entirely. Though the current owner, Aiden, and archivist, Penelope, have tended to the historic estate for over two decades, they finally agree to sell the land and demolish the building.
Over the course of seven months, Penelope rushes to complete her archive of the art, books, and miscellaneous objects that have accumulated over centuries. The stress of her archive is coupled with the anxiety over Aiden’s brother Julian’s return. Throughout the novel, we see Penelope bonding with the habitants of Mornington, reckoning with her relationship to art, and dealing with her trauma caused by Julian.
“Even now, as aridness eats through the outside world, the weeds and yellow flowers that have flourished in the aftermath of the disaster are protected by the shadows and nourished by the water that drips from the broken pipe.”
With the gradual deterioration of the estate due to natural forces, it feels as if nature is trying to reclaim what once belonged to it. A major focus of this novel is destruction and what it means to create anew; destruction often is not the end but a site for rebirth. Though Penelope has devoted so much of her life to the preservation of Mornington, in its demolition, she is able to transition into a new future with Aiden.
The novel also heavily emphasizes the dangers in thinking about possession as a form of triumph. People cannot be possessed without some form of violence, and even artwork cannot truly be possessed no matter how personal to the individual, as we see how paintings are bought and sold and stolen in the novel.
“With him, and later with Julian, desire was inextricably connected with possession – the desire to possess and the desire to be taken.”
The majority of the novel is formatted as a diary where Penelope details her experience of the months leading up to the building’s demolition. Not only do we read Penelope’s journal entries detailing her actions throughout the day and her thoughts and feelings, we also get brief descriptions of the photographs, paintings, and found objects. It feels deeply personal to see what objects a person finds to be important and how that person goes about describing a thing in their own words.
Each section of the novel is prefaced with a description of a real piece of artwork from artists such as “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” “The Rape of Europa,” and “Tabula Rasa.” The novel also contains scenes of Julian exploring Europe leading up to Mornington’s demolition. As we learn more about Penelope’s romance with Julian, the art pieces described seem to become more modern and more violent. The structure of this book creates a tension within readers that mirrors the tension Penelope feels as the days go on.
“For the first time, archiving seemed futile. The heat encased us like a cocoon and we re-emerged into the melting world with fewer illusions about the future.”
Toward the beginning of the novel, Penelope questions the importance of archival work and research. In the face of the deterioration of the ecological landscape, to dedicate one’s life to art feels futile. But in the end, the book captures how essential art is for the human condition. There is an irreplaceability in art that emulates the irreplaceability in people. Art serves as a form of memory or re-creation of an imagined past. A strong, subtle moment of this comes when Penelope is being looked at for her portrait; after months of feeling awkward for feeling looked at, she takes the time to look at the painter instead. This moment captures the connection that occurs when we take the time to observe.
“The art of memory thus involves forming visual placeholders for objects, people, or ideas, and depositing them into an imaginary building erected in the mind.”
I deeply enjoyed reading Landscapes. Penelope has a hard time finding the proper words to describe the art pieces that impact her most; I suppose that’s what I’m experiencing now, trying to communicate with you how much this book moved me.
Though the themes of this book are complex, Christine Lai’s writing does not over-complicate the art. Landscapes is beautiful, provocative, and accessible. It will remind you that destruction is rarely the end and that we all must continue forward.
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