Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Maria Gainza review – Bolaño-esque art mystery

The Argentinian writer follows up her thrilling debut, Optic Nerve, with a truth-twisting tale of forgery

One of my favourite books of the past few years was a debut novel by an Argentinian art critic that didn’t get nearly enough attention when it was published in translation in 2019. Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza is a digressive, virtually plotless account of a woman surveying her life through the paintings that enthral her. I found it so fresh, so piercingly beautiful, I felt like I’d had a door kicked open in my mind, as Bruce Springsteen said of hearing Bob Dylan for the first time.

It was clear that Gainza, like British authors Rachel Cusk and Claire-Louise Bennett, was opening up new possibilities for the novel as a place of freedom, where you could blend fiction, memoir, art history and anecdote. She immediately felt like a thrilling discovery. I was eager to read her follow-up, though mindful that doors shouldn’t really need to be kicked open twice.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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