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The Memory Painter by Gwendolyn Womack: Unlocking past lives with art and drugs

May 30, 2015

 

The premise hooked me immediately. As the son of two painters, and a New England native (the book is set around Boston), I just tore through The Memory Painter.

At the onset, I expected a novel like Bel Canto that showcased the power of art, mixed with a love story that bounced through time like The Time Traveler’s Wife. What delights me about the story is that it defies categorization. 

Author Gwendolyn Womack has crafted a book that combines a love story, science fiction, historical fiction, and a medical thriller—and architects an imaginative world that could easily spawn several subsequent novels. It’s exciting to see an author stretch her imagination like Womack in this debut novel, and I applaud her for creating a book that doesn’t neatly fit into genres.

The premise is a wonderful enticement—scientists in the 80s find a drug that unlocks reincarnation. For a small group of scientists, this means uncovering repressed memories of past lives that date back to Viking exploration, ancient Rome, and imperial Egypt. In present day, the central character, Bryan, is the lynchpin to making sense of these memories. An internationally lauded artist, he creates paintings based on memories from his past lives.

The love story that unfolds between the two central characters spans millennia, and Womack heightens its drama by inserting a ubiquitous villain in every past life that keeps them apart. The beauty of the structure, where souls are hopping into new bodies in new eras, is that the mystery that binds all of it together isn’t a whodunit so much as a whoisit, where Womack keeps you guessing which characters are good and evil until the final few pages.

This is a wonderful debut novel, and I’d encourage readers to go in without expectations. This isn’t a thriller, or a romance, historical fiction or sci-fi. It’s an imaginative novel that sets up the structure of what could lead to a potential series that follows how an ancient family dispute has played out for thousands of years, as well as the promise that for the right people, love can be eternal. The scope of the book broadens until the end, where the decisions of this handful of men and women could impact the future of humanity. 

By tapping into the potential of reincarnation to drive this story forward, this book is a strong foray into the limitless possibilities that Womack’s world could create for us down the road. I’m looking forward to it. 

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