“I’d heard about him but never seen him,” Rachel Courteau says in the opening line of Sheramy Bundrick’s debut novel, Sunflowers. The reader is likely to be familiar with the images that follow (the lunatic muttering to himself as he wanders the countryside painting, the confused soul haunting the bordellos of Arles) but in Bundrick’s hands a fuller picture of Vincent van Gogh emerges through an imagined love relationship between Vincent and Rachel, the real-life prostitute for whom he famously mutilated his ear. The book covers the two years van Gogh spent in and out of mental hospitals in Arles, Saint-Remy, and Auvers before his suicide in 1890.
Bundrick’s empathy for the painter and his art is abundant, and it is comforting to imagine that he did indeed have someone who loved him as deeply as Bundrick’s Rachel does. The settings are richly imagined—the yellow house in Arles, the asylum in Saint Remy, the bordello where Rachel lives and works. Portraits of others in the painter’s life give Bundrick the opportunity to add doctors, saloon keepers, and other factual characters to the tale. The result is a compelling novel, written with grace and assurance unusual for a debut. It probably helps to know something about this period of Van Gogh’s life already, so that the character studies of Van Gogh and Rachel will predominate over plot, as presumably the author intends. With a bit of biographical knowledge (which most readers will have), the story moves with admirable tension toward the sad, inevitable conclusion.