I reviewed ‘Smoke and Gold’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.
Rowena Culloden, a young English girl, and her mother from Liverpool are visiting Amsterdam on holiday in 1972. Whilst having tea in a small French café on the edge of the Red Light District, they are joined by a mysterious but friendly stranger. They have a long chat together.
Some years later, her mother dies and while Rowena is studying for her Art Degree, she keeps coming across references which remind her of the stranger. Where was the factory where he worked and supposedly repaired a diamond? Round the corner from the café? Which corner? Why was he dressed as if he lived in the 18th century? How could he know so much about how Rembrandt mixed his oils? Did he say he spoke nine languages? Who was this man? She asked herself almost every day.
Could he really be the French alchemist Count St Germain, who Madam Blavatsky, Founder of the Theosophical Society, named as one of the eleven masters in the world at any one time, alongside such figures as Christ, Buddha, Apollonius of Tyana, Christian Rosenkreutz and Francis Bacon? He was said to have been born in the12th century and some people believe he is still alive. According to the ‘Paris Soir’, he was last seen in France in 1967.
Rowena was determined to find out. But what else would she encounter on her journey through the Art, Culture and Magical life of the ageless and dynamic city of Amsterdam?
This is a very unusual read – the author’s background as a poet is obvious and she creates some stunning imagery and uses some fabulous language. This isn’t structured traditionally; you move back and forth on a sometimes confusing, but always interesting, journey with Rowena, through a well-researched and skilfully depicted Amsterdam. The author has truly brought the city to life – it was previously a place I’d never had much interest in visiting, but now it’s definitely on my list.
There are many references to art, artists and literature. In other hands this could be distracting, annoying and even pretentious, but here their inclusion works really well, adding another layer to an already richly complex tale that twists and turns through vivid descriptions and interesting encounters.
Rowena is a lovely main character, interesting, completely un-stereotypical and warm. I really enjoyed the sections about her past, and her affection for her mother and their lovely relationship was a real strength of the book.
I did feel that we didn’t get to know enough about Meneer Surmount – I would have loved this strand of the story to have been developed more, although he perhaps deserves a whole book of his own!
Aside from this, my only real gripe is that there were quite a few typos in the version I read, for example misplaced speech marks, unnecessary capitalisation, and misspellings. This became a little distracting, a real shame because this book is a little gem.