Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal review – a bravura achievement

A celebration of the art of trompe-l’œil confirms this French prize winner as one of our most gifted stylists

As she wanders the immense backlot of Rome’s Cinecittà film studio – “Hollywood on the Tiber” – the heroine of Maylis de Kerangal’s Painting Time is struck by how unreal the sets seem up close, how patently confected. “A set doesn’t have to be real,” her guide explains, “it has to be true.”

There is something magnificently true about De Kerangal’s fiction, which braids technical fluency with winged prose. A meticulous researcher, she draws immensely humane stories out of niche vocational knowledge: the world-bending muscle of mechanical engineering (Birth of a Bridge); the hermetic brutalities of transplant surgery (Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome science book prize in 2017); the explorations of haute cuisine (The Cook). In her new novel, Painting Time, translated by Jessica Moore, the French author turns her granular attentions to trompe-l’œil and its artisans: those “bamboozlers of the real” who can conjure marble, wood and ethereal skyscapes from pigment and lacquer.

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