The God of Spring

Written by Arabella Edge
Review by L.K. Mason

It is 1818, and French artist Théodore Géricault is in danger of becoming the 19th century equivalent of a one-hit wonder, unable to produce anything creative following his gold-medal-winning painting six years earlier. Stymied artistically and romantically (an adulterous affair with his young aunt cannot possibly continue), Géricault must find a new subject to inspire him. A few years earlier, the French frigate Medusa ran aground in Africa. A raft was built to tow the ‘overflow’ passengers, but this raft was quickly set adrift on the open sea instead, leaving only fifteen people alive when rescued. Survivors spoke of government incompetence, and their stories were hushed up.

Intrigued, Géricault contacts two survivors, offering them lodging and care in exchange for their tale, certain that herein lies his next masterpiece. But his guests are increasingly reluctant to give a true account of what happened on the raft, just as Géricault becomes increasingly determined to faithfully recreate the disaster. He painstakingly builds a raft replica, buys cadavers with which to people it, and worries over every minute detail of the shipwreck. His obsession will eventually result in one of his best-known paintings, The Raft of the Medusa. In the process, though, Géricault gives his own health, his whole life, over to his work, driven by a mania that parallels the experiences of the raft survivors.

Edge’s award-winning first novel, The Company, was based on the shipwreck of a Dutch ship in the 17th Century. She returns to nautical disasters with her second novel, but more than this, she gives careful insight into the process of creating a work of art. Géricault is passionate, artistic, flawed, selfish, and sympathetic; Edge makes the tale of his painting as compelling as the story which inspired it. Recommended.