Background to writing my new novel, The Painting



When I first started writing fiction, I had little notion of where my inspiration came from. An idea would bob up, apparently from the ether, and I would run with it. It is still the case that ideas for stories arrive fairly randomly, but now I understand that the milieu in which I place a story relates to the life I’ve lived, the places I’ve visited, and what I’ve read.


My latest novel, THE PAINTING, is to be published on 15 July 2021. It is a homage to the city that I grew up in. A city of bright sunlight and summer heat and beautiful beaches and sparkling blue water. But the trigger for the plot of THE PAINTING was an article that I read in a newspaper in early 2014, an article about a hidden Budapest art collection, an article that made me think, what if…?


The novel that I wrote after that what if moment begins in Sydney in early 1989, not long before the breakup of the Soviet Union: Anika, a traumatised young immigrant from Hungary, inherits an impressionist portrait of an auburn-haired woman. Knowing nothing of its provenance, Anika takes it to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where the curators identify it as being the work of Impressionist artist Rocheteau. Shortly afterwards, the painting is stolen, and Anika is left wondering whom she can really trust. With a police investigation underway and a handful of suspects in the frame, she decides to take matters into her own hands. But soon she receives a nasty shock about the possible origins of her painting, and she knows she must make plans to travel back to Budapest – so that she can track down the truth and confront the ghosts of her grandmother’s past.


No one can live in Australia without being aware of the importance of immigration to the country’s history. When I grew up in Sydney, many of my friends were the children of immigrants. There was the girl who lived with her grandparents who’d left Russia from its eastern border. There were the children of parents who’d come to Australia from Displaced Person camps after the Second World War or later, parents who were from all over Europe: the ones I knew of were from Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Austria, Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia.


When I was very young, I remember seeing, in a book in my father’s study, a black-and-white photograph of tanks in a cobbled street in a city called Budapest. It was a frightening image that stuck in my head. Sometimes I imagined what it would be like having tanks of some foreign power trundling through the streets of downtown Sydney. The sheer size of the things, the puniness of the people watching. The image of those tanks has stayed with me all my life. It was the face of fear.


I learned that Russia had invaded Hungary in November 1956. Later I was to discover that this invasion was to quash an uprising by Hungarians who wanted the Russian occupation of their country to end. The uprising was put down after only 12 days, but many Hungarians involved in that revolution managed to cross the border into Austria. There refugee camps had been set up, and some of the refugees ended up in Australia. And one of them, Tabilla, was to become the aunt of the main character of The Painting.


The newspaper article that I chanced upon in 2014, the article that triggered my imagination, was in The Guardian. It was about a collection of paintings that a Hungarian butcher and his wife had secretly bought and kept hidden during the Communist period. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/03/hungarian-butcher-secret-art-collection-exhibited-after-50-years.


Of course, the events in my new novel are not based on this article; they are entirely fictitious, as are my characters. The Guardian article was simply the catalyst that set me off, imagining a young and traumatised Hungarian immigrant who ends up in Australia in the mid-1980s. She is carrying with her an Impressionist painting of unknown provenance from her grandmother’s collection, and she has no idea how her grandmother came by it.


I had to do a lot of research before I began the book – and while I was writing it – and one lovely part of this research was a field trip Budapest. This involved tramping all around the central areas of Buda and Pest, with visits to the principal sites including museums, to get a feel for the city and its architecture and its history. My main protagonist, Anika, was in her twenties when she left Budapest and travelled to Australia. I had to get to know her background, and that of her family, whose memories reached right back to the Second World War. I had to discover their involvement in the Hungarian Revolution, and in earlier events in that tumultuous period of the Second World War when Budapest was occupied first by the Germans and then by the Russians, and when many valuable artworks were looted.


The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the process had started several years before. Hungary had been one of the first countries in the Soviet Bloc to loosen its ties with Russia. My new novel is to be published in 2021, exactly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


When the Berlin Wall fell, in November 1989, I was living in London. I remember sitting glued to the television screen as Germans from East and West Berlin hacked off bits of the wall, and the joy and the tears on their faces. That was over 30 years ago now, and before many younger readers were born. I hope that they, and older readers who lived through that remarkable period, will enjoy reading my new work of fiction and accompanying Anika on her journey as she moves between countries, between Hungary and Australia. On her way she makes discoveries about her family’s past. And she also makes discoveries about who she is.

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