Trompe l’oeil by Nancy Reisman, Tin House, 344 pages, $15.95 paperback original. The title translated from the French means “trick the eye.” It’s an art term for works of all sorts employing optical illusion – a fly on a plate, say, so realistic and vivid in a Hartnett still life that you want to swat the canvas. The prologue of Nancy Reisman’s book, for instance, introduces us to the Palazzo Spada in Rome, with passageways “suggesting elegant spaces beyond, perhaps a dinner table set for eight, a Persian carpet; or a music room, a piano, tall windows” but revealing on close inspection “an architectural joke; it’s a foreshortened joke; the far-end child sized.”
It is metaphor for an entire book awhirl with family memory and grief – for a dead child at least.
Nancy Reisman is a gorgeous writer. There are times, to be frank, in this tragic book when the writing is almost too rich. But her second novel – her first was “The First Desire” – is, in every way, a fulfillment of the promise of the first (or, for those whose conviction that her talent far exceeded “promise,” a continuation of her gift.
She grew up in Buffalo, the daughter of the late physician Robert Reisman and the late painter Rena Reisman. Her sister Linda Reisman in this artistic family is a film producer who produced some of the best films by writer/director Paul Schrader and whose next film will be “The Danish Girl” starring Eddie Redmayne as the first male-to-female surgical transgender.
“The First Desire” is one of the more luxuriant novels on the Buffalo bookshelf, full of leafy Lancaster Avenue and references to the Central Terminal, Laube’s Old Spain etc. She is, luxuriantly trans-Atlantic and back in ‘Trompe l’oeil” in which beautifully written descriptions of art works are metaphorically related to sections of the novel and the story concerns the horrible loss of a child in a Roman traffic accident and her family ever afterward. Before the publication of “The First Desire” she said, “My Mom’s work as an artist opened up that world for all of us.” As she grew up her mother “would be talking about other artists and studying art history … It was always there but it was also a part of everyday life.” It still is in this novel. – Jeff Simon