What if you wrote a letter that went to the wrong address, and it was answered in the guise of the person for whom it was intended? That’s the premise of Smoke Portrait, the story of Glen Phayre, an Englishwoman who has answered an ad to be a pen pal to a Belgian prisoner. She makes a mistake in the address and Belgian teenager Marten Kuypers decides to write her back, posing as that prisoner. It’s hard to think of Marten as malicious or deceptive; it’s just that it’s 1936 in Belgium. His beloved older brother is presumed dead and he is easy prey for a gang who seemingly provides friendship but starts spouting the hateful message of a certain Austrian. Writing to Glen gives him an outlet, and she, in turn, writes back with the forthrightness she thinks is being shared.
Usually in books with alternating perspectives, I can’t help but find one perspective more fascinating than the other. In this book, both Glen and Marten’s stories are equally engrossing. Glen decides to see something of the world and join her divorced aunt on her tea plantation in Ceylon to help with her children. Her experiences as a white woman of some privilege who forms a relationship with a Ceylonese man contrast with Marten’s increasing obedience to his gang, which alarms both Glen and the reader. The book’s epilogue comes as a complete surprise, not incongruous with the characters, but not predictable—a mark of a very good writer.