Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew

Written by Susan Fletcher
Review by Sarah Bower

In 1889, the painter Vincent Van Gogh is expelled from the Provençal town of Arles after being caught walking through the town with no clothes on. A compassionate pastor recommends him to the mental hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a crumbling establishment at the foot of the Alpilles Mountains. The short period Van Gogh spent here was the most prolific of his working life, and among the paintings he produced is a small portrait of the warden’s wife, Madame Trabuc, a woman whom Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, described as a ‘poor soul, resigned to her fate.’

From this thin evidence, Fletcher has crafted a tale of an intense friendship and a long marriage, battered but unbowed, as good marriages are, by the years of small joys and disappointments. Fletcher’s Jeanne Trabuc is far from resigned. On the contrary, hers is a rich and rebellious soul which takes flight under the influence of the troubled artist. In a series of flashbacks we discover how an adventurous and unconventional girl was gradually tamed by circumstance, by having to care for a sick father, by marriage to a man who is struggling with his own demons and by the raising and letting go of her three sons. Yet her friendship with Van Gogh and her absorption of his notions of individual freedom and responsibility help her to re-make her life and recapture her spirit.

Fletcher’s writing is packed with repressed emotion. Every short and exquisite sentence is a ticking bomb; every tiny nuance and line of understated dialogue carries a world of meaning. A sensitive and truthful picture of a quiet woman determined to make herself heard. Highly recommended.