Book Review: Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher is a lyrical look at the true price of art

If there was ever an author who had the ability to paint a picture with his prose it’s Tom Rachman. In his latest novel, The Italian Teacher, Rachman puts together a complex and often lyrical study of a man who has grown up in the shadows of his artist father’s genius. The result is a heart-wrenching examination of modern art and its true costs.

We first meet Charles Bavinsky a.k.a. Pinch as a five-year-old boy. His mother, Natalie is a talented but overlooked potter. She meets Pinch’s father, Bear when she is 20 years old and becomes his mistress and eventual wife. Bear is a larger-than-life character who resembles real-life artists Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso, because he’s a philandering creative and like the former, he will destroy his artworks if he believes they are not up to scratch.

We follow Pinch’s life as he goes from being an aspiring painter who is deterred by his father’s criticism to a failed art biographer. He eventually settles on a dead-end job as a language teacher. Pinch, like his mother Natalie, never really achieves his full potential and this is possibly on account of the emotional scars left behind by the disinterested Bear. In a telling part of this book, Rachman describes how Bear puts so much love, care and attention into his artistic works but that he has a complete disregard for his human creations. As the story progresses, it should come as no surprise that he goes on to father more children with his muses. They always seem to love Bear but he will wind up abandoning them.

Pinch is an interesting character. He becomes the anointed heir and caretaker of his father’s work. But an opportunity presents itself to Pinch, which will have some far-reaching implications, should he follow through. What unfolds is one nuanced and dramatic story with some unexpected results.

Rachman’s novel is a well-written and entraining ode to the true value of art. The story is a detailed portrait of an artistic genius, and a character study examining the effects of such dogged determination and ruthlessness often exhibited by those who pursue this career path. The Italian Teacher is a sad and touching story about the devastating effects that can come with seeking paternal approval when it was never likely to be forthcoming. It’s moving stuff.

Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher is available now through Text Publishing.