Richardson’s ravishing new novel brings beauty in succinct, striking prose
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Canadian author and book designer CS Richardson’s novel, All the Colour in the World, is a beautiful testament to the enduring power and beauty of art and of love.
Like his previous novels, The End of the Alphabet and The Emperor of Paris, this new fiction is sparse, intense and innovative — and, without question, will leave readers marveling at how its author says so much with so few words.
The scrupulously selected prose Richardson has committed to this book relates the story of one man’s life journey and the way in which the most challenging parts of that journey are assuaged by his passion for art and art making. Richardson’s protagonist is Henry, first introduced as an orphaned boy living in 1920s Toronto with his sister and Shakespeare-quoting grandmother, who recognizes and lovingly encourages her grandson’s interest in art. When she gifts Henry his first set of colouring pencils for his birthday, he becomes fascinated by the distinctiveness of each colour, and even by their names, and devotes countless hours to copying illustrations from Boy’s Own magazines and classic books.
In his grandma’s eyes, Henry is already an artist.
“She stands in your bedroom doorway, surveying the piles of Boy’s Own tracings gathering dust under your bed, the doodle-filled primers heaped in a corner, the painstaking copies of Wyeth’s knights and pirates and Crusoe and Friday and young Jim, the reminders of how you — mere schoolboy, Gran says — managed to transform, like magic, what anyone might see into what only you could see.
“It’s all abracadabra, Gran says. A few strokes of light and shade and hue and the ordinary becomes your extraordinary.”
As Henry gains confidence in his abilities, he sets out to learn everything he can about the history of art and art’s great masters, eventually turning that passion into an academic study and professional career.
Snippets from Henry’s obsessive research about palette, shading, technique and genius in general compose half of the novel’s narrative, carefully juxtaposed by Richardson next to the events of Henry’s life. But rather than stall or detract from Henry’s essential story, those snippets of information — whether about Modigliani’s unique approach to portraiture or Pierre Bonnard’s penchant for an intense colour palette and complex compositions — are paramount in moving Henry’s story forward.
Whether he is dipping his toes into the pool at the Summerside Bathing Pavilion in his hometown or roaming the narrow streets of a Sicilian village he knew as a soldier, Henry sees and evaluates everything through the prism of art. Everything he experiences — love and war, grief and gratitude, fear and failure, renewal, and redemption — is impacted by that prism. Even when Henry suffers tremendous loss, it is colour, or the lack of it, that invites readers to understand the depth of his pain.
This novel, so simple and succinct, is a love story, a war story and at least a semester’s worth of an art history course all rolled into one. It is poetic and perceptive, tender, and touching, and a lovely work of art.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer, editor and oral historian.