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Paint by Magic
Kathryn Reiss
Harcourt Books, 271 pages

Paint by Magic
Kathryn Reiss
Kathryn Ress received a B.A. in English and German from Duke University in 1980 and a M.F.A. in English and Creative Writing from University of Michigan in 1988. As a Fulbright-Hayes Scholar, she attended Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitšt, Bonn Germany in 1981. She has been teaching at Mills College since 1989.

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A review by Ian Nichols

One of the objectives of the time-travel story is to evoke the period to which the journey takes place. This is, perhaps, easier when the scene is in the dark ages, or the age of dinosaurs, where action can take the place of characterisation, and the unfamiliarity of the setting can be a fascination in itself. However, when the setting is just a little while ago, and the action is not particularly violent, then the writer is required to evoke the people of the time, rather than the action. It is this skill in characterisation at which Kathryn Reiss excels.

As an example, the character of Lorenzo da Padova, the malevolent painter who is the originator of the magic in the book, is created in just over two pages, yet his brooding presence sits insidiously in the background of every successive page, even though he never reappears, except in the conversation of others. His intensity and disregard of sentiment, of any human value, in pursuit of perfection in his painting is chilling, and exquisitely evoked.

Paint by Magic is not, however, simply a character study. It poses questions about the values we adopt in modern life, and whether these values could be changed for the better by adopting simpler, closer lifestyles, as the families of earlier times did. What Connor, the first-person narrator of the story realises when he is sent back in time, is that many of the things he depends upon for pleasure and entertainment in his 21st century life are only things, things which mean very little. He learns the value of people, and of play, and of families.

Through a malevolent spell, and through the power of art, Connor's mother, Pam, journeys back in time to the 20s. There, she stays with, and is a model for, a brilliant but eccentric artist. When she returns to her own time, some lingering effects of the spell remain with her, until Connor also is sent through time and breaks the power of the spell. Along the way, they both stay with the same family, and learn about the love that should exist in a family, and the fun that can be had without televisions and computers. Both of them return to their present as changed people, and better people.

This novel is elegantly precise in its language, and concentrates on telling the story while developing the characters. Connor starts out as something of a brat, but his change is believable and carefully integrated with the mystery which surrounds his travel through time. The family they both stay with in the past is beautifully drawn, and simply drawn. The details, and all the clues to the mystery, are where they are needed, but there is no hint of over-writing. Nor does the book talk down to its intended audience of young adults. Instead, it gives them a worthwhile story in clear, simple prose, and one with a worthwhile message.

Parents should buy Paint by Magic for their kids before the kids discover it and buy it for themselves. Both parents and young adults will enjoy it.

Copyright © 2003 Ian Nichols

Ian Nichols is studying for his Masters degree at the University of Western Australia, and is fortunate enough to be studying in the area he most enjoys; Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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