Anna Enquist is the pen name of Christa Widlund-Broer, born in 1945 in Amsterdam, Holland. Enquist learned to play the piano at the music academy in the Hague Conservatory of Music while studying clinical psychology at Leiden University to become a psychoanalyst. From 1976 she led a dual career of pianist and psychoanalyst.
In 1987 Enquist decided to drop her other activities and devote herself entirely to writing. She published a collection of poems while working as a psychoanalyst in 1991 and in 2014 was named Amsterdam’s poet laureate after publishing several books of poetry. She has also written some novels, her first one, The Masterpiece, which made her fame, was released in Dutch in 1994 and English in 2003. Through the years Enquist has won several literary prizes and is one of the most acclaimed writers in the Netherlands. She lives in Amsterdam.
The Masterpiece is the story of a family who, under the power of an embittered, tyrannical and manipulative mother, succumbs under the tension linked to the organisation of the great painting exhibition of the younger son, Johan Steenkamer, in the national museum.
Alma, the matriarch, who is seventy-year-old, was abandoned over forty years back by her painter husband, Charles, who decided to start a new life alone in the USA. He left her with their two young boys, Oscar and Johan, who hate each other due to their mother’s wicked scheming. Watching the fratricidal war seems a source of pleasure for Alma’s twisted, perverse psyche by dividing and ruling.
The eldest son, Oscar is a museum curator and an art critique. He is a lonely, tortured soul, living in the shadow of his domineering mother, whom, since childhood, he endeavoured to please for the sake of gaining her love. He is consumed by jealousy of his brother, Johan, a painter like his father and consequently his mother’s favourite. Out of jealousy, Oscar does not miss an opportunity to take revenge on his younger brother, Johan, like writing scathing articles in the newspapers about modern painting.
The forty-seven-year-old, Johan Steenkamer is an ambitious, highly talented painter; he is egocentric, lustful, matrimonially unfaithful, compassionless and detached. He is obsessed with his art and is thus only able to channel all his passion and emotions through his paintings, hence, hindering any possible communication between himself and his thirty-five-year-old wife, Ellen. Furthermore, having incompatible characters creates an insurmountable chasm between the couple leading to their separation.
After his young daughter, Saar’s tragic death, Johan paints his wife’s best friend, the psychiatrist, Lisa, with his former wife, Ellen. He manages to capture Ellen’s overwhelming grief in a masterful painting which will constitute the centre of his exhibition, his ultimate achievement, his masterpiece.
This compelling, dramatically touching novel is composed of three parts. Each part is increasingly intense, leading to the third and final one, the fitting culmination after excessive tension. The author describes with diligence the development of events which shape the destiny of her characters according to their psyche.
The women in the novel are depicted more positively than the men, apart from the perverse matriarch, Alma, who even in some parts appears to be worthy of sympathy. In contrast, the men are egoistic, possessive and pathetic, each one of them living in his bubble, preoccupied with his own affairs.
An insightful, psychological analysis on the vulnerability of human psyche, the complexity of people’s minds driven by jealousy, possessiveness, egotism and disloyalty. The mysteries of emotional manipulation by family members as well as the consequences of such machinations on family relationships. A well-written novel without “hitting a wrong note”, worthy of a psychoanalyst.