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Review: Self-Portrait with Nothing

3/5 stars

I really enjoyed Pokwatka's The Parliament, which I read last month, so I decided to give her debut a try. I could tell it was a first novel - not as polished or well-executed - but I liked it.

Pepper Rafferty works at a university as a forensic anthropologist. She has two moms, who run a veterinary clinic, where she helps out after work. Her husband Ike is a historian. Theirs is a sweet and stable life, with a strong intellectual connection, rather than an overly affectionate one. Pepper is also adopted - no one ever knew who left her on the doorstep of the two women vets, but Pepper figured it out years ago, when she was just 7 years old. She's never told anyone, but her biological mother is the famous, reclusive, and wildly unpredictable artist, Ula Frost.

Ula is best known for, supposedly, painting portraits that open portals into alternate universes. Once she paints a portrait, a different version of that person appears in this universe. What happens then is a mystery - very few subjects are willing to discuss it, and the one who talked about it publicly ended up dead soon after.

When news hits that Ula has gone missing, Pepper is pulled into the riddle that is her mother, and the thriller that is her mother's life. She's approached by a shadowy group intent on purchasing all of Ula's artworks, and subsequently chased around Europe while she tries to track down clues about Ula's life and disappearance.

The concept was cool, and I liked this fresh take on what has become a common theme in works of fiction - the multiverse. In this interpretation, different versions of the world are accessed by works of art (as opposed to some kind of technological catalyst). I wish Pokwatka had gone deeper into an explanation of how or why this worked, and also descriptions or exploration of the other worlds. Ultimately, nothing is really explained... I don't think that's a huge spoiler, just a "know before you go in" kind of thing - because it matters a little, but not a lot. Personally, I would have liked more of that, but also I get how this is a story centered on Pepper and her experiences.


UP NEXT... Is that I'm going to Amsterdam! Photos in a few weeks!

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