The Backstreets of Purgatory is the debut novel by Helen Taylor. Released by Unbound, a publishing label whose books are crowdfunded fully by supporters, it tells the story of Dunkeld-born art school student Finn Garvie. His ambition is to be Glasgow’s modern day answer to the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio, but sadly he’s not really succeeding due to a number of reasons – until he meets a man who claims to be Caravaggio himself. Can this man help Finn to get his life together and advance his budding artistic career?
To begin with, Finn is something of a cliché as far as leading men – particularly art school students – are concerned. With a public school education, a chain-smoking habit and a difficult relationship with his family, he takes his artist’s block out on everyone else around him, including his long-suffering girlfriend Lizzi. While helping with the refurbishment of his local church hall – who are also letting him use the facility as a studio of sorts – he then has a chance meeting with Kassia, a Polish au pair. He is immediately drawn to her and decides to make her the subject of his next painting. This aside, many of the rest of the characters are inherently believable and realistic, including Tuesday McLaughlin, a recovering junkie with a traumatic past, and Finn’s alcoholic neighbour Maurice who is helping him with the church hall refurb.
The setting of the novel is beautifully and colourfully described and brings Glasgow to life in a way that will be familiar to those who know the city and helpful to those who don’t. Initially the pacing of the story is a bit slow, and it takes some time for the connections between the characters to be established in full, and indeed for Caravaggio to enter the picture – however, once he does fully the novel begins to hit its stride. The writing sways comfortably between being bittersweet and hilarious throughout, however the tone gets ostensibly darker along with this and the parallels between the lives of Finn and his hero are increasingly evident, leading to an explosive conclusion. The writer has done a great deal of research into the artist, even going as far as to name the chapters after his paintings.
Although flawed in places, with a few ends left loose, this is a solid enough debut from a promising writer.
The Backstreets of Purgatory is out now on Unbound Books.