Warpaint by Alicia Foster

4 June, 2013


England, 1942: four women artists must navigate a dark world of conflict, hardship and subterfuge where information is a matter of life and death and art has become a weapon.

Alicia Foster’s Warpaint is a stunning debut set towards the end of WWII depicting the various lives and choices of four very different female artists. Laura Knight, Dame of the Realm, Royal Academician and larger than life, Faith Farr, recently married but on the run from her husband, Cecily Browne, sheltered and cossetted and praying daily for the safe return of her RAF fiancé and Vivienne Thayer, married to an influential government figure, working for a secret organisation and in love with a German resistance fighter.

Using the backdrop of the war effort on the Home Front, Foster creates a vibrant and vivid picture of life in Britain in a time fraught with uncertainty and danger. Laura, Faith and Cecily are given the task of creating art depicting and promoting the war effort. And while this gives them the freedom and opportunity to move around freely, paint and be paid for their work, it is also done under severe restrictions and government guidelines. As they struggle to balance authenticity and integrity with what is required and expected of them, it is this experience that will change and form them as artists. And then there is Vivienne who is working undercover to produce questionable propaganda, created to sow paranoia and suspicion amongst the Germans, who is caught in an inescapable situation and has to make a terrible choice between serving her country and choosing love.

Foster ties all these threads successfully, imbuing her novel with the domestic, political and thrill that you will race through it as I did. What I really liked about Warpaint was the way in which Foster manages to sink into each woman’s psyche, showing us how they thought about their choices, their work, their lovers and the war. It felt real and rang true, something that is actually quite rare in novels. Not sentimental or nostalgic but something you could transpose onto a contemporary novel, the worries and complex thoughts of real women dealing seriously with their work and their relationships.

The women are the focus of Foster’s novel here. But the men play their part too. From Vivienne’s husband Sam who is larger than life and the brains behind Black, the secret operation running in tandem with the Bletchley Circle, to Frido, Vivienne’s idealistic German lover, and David, Faith’s husband who turns out to be playing a very dangerous game.

What makes the novel even more fascinating is that some of Foster’s characters are based on real people. I’m delighted to see that the National Portrait Gallery will be doing an exhibition on the works of Laura Knight which I’m dying to see, just to put a perspective on what I’ve read.

I loved Warpaint and can’t wait to see what Foster will come up with next. It reminded me a little of the novels of Sarah Waters and I’m also minded to give Pat Barker’s Still Life a go now. Do also check out Hayley’s post on the book.

I would like to thank Penguin for kindly giving me a copy of this book to review.

6 Responses to “Warpaint by Alicia Foster”

  1. Simon T Says:

    I’m very glad I picked up a copy, if it’s this good! Especially if it reminded you of Sarah Waters.

  2. Mystica Says:

    I like the era and the background to this story. Thanks for the review.

  3. Annabel Says:

    Ditto Simon!

  4. sakura Says:

    Simon and Annabel: Happy reading!

    Mystica: It’s also one of my favourite periods in history too – lots of shady goings on!

  5. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) Says:

    This does sounds like something I’d love. I keep meaning to read the Pat Barker one too – they sound like they’d go together well

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