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Intriguing questions about love, memory, endurance

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UNDER a brilliant blue sky in Cyprus in 1964, a man loses his wife and young son to a senseless terrorist attack.

Fast-forward two years to a tiny speck of land off the coast of Normandy, where the same man arrives, lost and heartbroken, still seeking answers to the tragedy that haunts his every step.

This captivating novel, by South African-born Canadian writer and painter Lewis DeSoto, focuses on a Canadian artist, Leo Millar, whose contented life in Paris with his wife and Piero is now only a tender and ever-present memory.

The man's loneliness seems magnified by the remoteness of his new home, La Mouche, a rugged isle surrounded by treacherous cliffs with meadows and pine forests shrouded in near-perpetual fog.

Leo appears lost; he wanders along the shores of the island, drawn towards the ocean scenery beset by dramatic weather. His vulnerability attracts the support of the local village's innkeepers and the concern of P®re Caron, a genial priest.

Caron encourages his new friend to restore a damaged painting said to have been created by a famous artist who, decades ago, visited La Mouche and left his work in the island's remote seaside church.

Leo becomes drawn to two inhabitants of the village: the mysterious Lorca, a composer who has come to the island on her own artistic journey, and Tobias, a strange boy who seems to have lost his capacity for speech.

The artist's future may appear predestined from this point forward; however, DeSoto manages to transcend predictable motifs by revealing the unusual reasons behind Lorca's apparent artistic paralysis and Tobias' troubling silence.

DeSoto is no stranger to tackling uncomfortable themes. His debut novel, 2003's A Blade of Grass, examined violence in South Africa through the eyes of two war-scarred women struggling to save their farm.

The Restoration Artist is an equally sensitive work in which world events, such as the Holocaust and the brutalities on Cyprus, impact the lives of its characters.

The novel appears to be influenced by DeSoto's own period of personal loss and by his love for Normandy, where he now lives -- the region praised by the Impressionists Monet and Renoir for its magical and inspiring qualities.

De Soto's gifts as an artist and his eye for the ever-changing qualities of light help bring the rocky, storm-battered province of France to life.

He achieves poignancy through his flashbacks to Leo's courtship of Claudine in Paris and his time spent teaching Piero how to use a canvas and brush.

The Restoration Artist allows DeSoto to raise intriguing questions about love, memory and endurance. Can one truly reconcile with one's past? Can one rebuild one's former life? What is the fate of the survivor, the one left alive after a tragedy that takes away their loved ones?

The reader gets to know Leo, Lorca and Tobias as true and richly drawn individuals with their own powerful secrets, deep-rooted feelings and remarkable resilience.

At its core, The Restoration Artist is an achingly personal exploration of the need we have for each other. DeSoto examines the personal sacrifice inherent in the creative process and the healing power of art.

Paul R. McCulloch is a philosophy student at the University of Winnipeg. He is an arts and culture blogger at

The Restoration Artist

By Lewis DeSoto

HarperCollins, 281 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 J9

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