Book review: The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson

They say every picture tells a story... but here’s a story that paints a multitude of pictures.

The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson
The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson

Imogen Robertson breaks outs from her now trademark Crowther & Westerman series of 18th century mysteries to bring us this gripping tale of a young woman artist struggling to survive in the glittering but louche world of Belle Époque Paris.

And the shift to a new century and a new canvas pays off for this talented historical novelist as her broad brush sweeps deep beneath the luxurious façade of Paris in 1909 to tease out the hidden corners of darkness, deception and danger.

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Literary in its conception and form, but thrilling in its slow-burning, compulsive plotline, The Paris Winter is itself a work of art, its imagery, precision and atmosphere working on the mind like a big, beautiful painting.

Maud Heighton has left behind an unhappy childhood and the constraints of life with her brother and his wife in a small Northumberland town to study art at Lafond’s famous Académie in Paris.

It took all her courage and determination to escape but almost two years into her training, she has discovered that Paris eats money, paint and canvas. For all its dazzling modernity and chic confidence, the city has given back to her ‘nothing but aching bones and loneliness.’

Worst of all, Maud is quietly starving and ‘hunger squeezed the hope out of you.’ She has just one more cold Paris winter to get through but her stock of bravery has all but run out.

So when wealthy, spirited Russian student Tanya Koltsova, who drifts around the académie in ‘a cloud of furs and fragrance,’ encourages her to take a job as a live-in companion to a sickly, young Parisian woman while still pursuing her studies, it seems like a dream come true.

Sylvie Morel and her older brother Christian live in an opulent apartment in the fashionable Rue de Seine but Sylvie, distracted and distant, has a terrible secret – she is addicted to opium and her behaviour is becoming increasingly bizarre.

As Maud is drawn into the Morels’ world of elegant luxury, their secrets become hers and before the New Year arrives, a greater deception will plunge her into the shadows that lurk beneath this glittering, glimmering, gaudy city...

The Paris Winter is an intriguing, emotive story of contrasts – light and darkness, wealth and poverty, loyalty and betrayal, innocence and awakening – but its greatest merit is to paint a city and its people with colour, depth and visual complexity through a palette of finely wrought words.

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An engaging exploration of Paris as it stands poised on the cusp of artistic and social change quickly accelerates into a fast-moving, tense drama which culminates amidst the real-life catastrophic flood of 1910 which saw the Seine overflow and sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing for safety.

Immaculately researched, and written with style and intelligence, The Paris Winter is a delight from start to finish.

(Headline Review, paperback, £6.99)