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Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead [in Booklist]

The mutable, esoteric art world is again the setting for award-winning Argentinian María Gainza’s latest, deftly translated by British writer-editor Thomas Bunstead, who also English-enabled her award-winning Optic Nerve (2019). Gainza’s narrator warns early on, “Any person reading this ought not to expect names, numbers, or dates.” She reveals herself as a former art critic surrounded by unreliable alliances, fake canvases, and other people’s stories.

Hers is one of four threads here, with the others featuring the late Enriqueta Macedo, who “was the country’s preeminent expert in art authentication”; Mariette Lydis, an Austrian noble-by-marriage who emigrated to Buenos Aires and became a sought-after portraitist “of the great and good of the city”; and Renée, a forger with “the disconcerting ability to enter the soul of another,” who was once among the Hotel Melancholical Forgers, Inc.

Of course the four-prongs – critic, authenticator, painter, forger – intermittently intersect and overlap, but Gainza doesn’t even hint at easy answers or exacting closure by the novel’s end. That titular “unknown”-ness – times four – might prove disappointing to some, but shrewd audiences will surely enjoy the engrossing challenge of an unpredictable pursuit.

Review: “Fiction,” Booklist, February 1, 2021

Readers: Adult

Published: 2018 (Spain), 2022 (United States)

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