I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on November 20. Don’t forget to grab your copy! Also, watch out for an interview with author Katarina West in the coming week, discussing her favourite reads and inspirations.
Summary: Is there such a thing as stolen genius, and if there is, can it turn against the very person who stole it?
Oscar Pellegrini is a talented fashion designer with a deadly enemy: his own critical mind. He destroys much of what he designs and has been drifting for years. A chance encounter with a former girlfriend triggers a creative crisis so deep that he escapes to Russia. Just when he thinks he has lost everything, he discovers a magical machine, called the Sampo, that can turn ordinary outfits into irresistible shining triumphs. Oscar takes the machine back to Italy – and before he knows it, he has become a fashion messiah Celebrities and socialites are fighting to wear his gorgeous garments. But the happily-ever-after ending turns into a nightmare, as he is haunted by his creations. Drawing inspiration from Finnish mythology and the epic Kalevala, Katarina West has spun a story on madness, guilt and cumbersome art.
My thoughts: Katarina West’s writing reminded me of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. She has a sort of romantic writing style, which goes beyond vivid detailed descriptions. The writing is evocative and sensual. And written in the form of a diary, it is personal taken to an almost voyeuristic extreme; be it when Oscar talks about his creative block, his guilt and self-doubt or his lovers. Something like this –
There were also times when my thoughts embarrassed me: it seemed such an ordinary thing to do, to fall in love. Yet then I happened to see her, and at that very instant I turned all rigid, and soft, and felt roused, and nervous, and insecure, and hopeful, and intrigued, and beneath all that, in the depths of my nerves and veins, in that terrible vortex of dreams and desires, I felt her presence, and it kept drawing me towards her; and that attraction had no rational cause, it entailed no why, or when, or how – no, it simply existed, with the inevitable simplicity of a law of physics, and as such, it was flesh over reason, blood over spirit, and once it had come upon you, there was nothing you could do about it.
Oscar Pellegrini is an unreliable narrator. He is moody, neurotic, obsessive, insecure and as the Sampo begins to affect him, he becomes increasingly crazed and incoherent. His creative blocks at the beginning, his spurts of inspiration and the final breakdowns soon get tedious and repetitive. The pace of the book is far too slow for what is essentially a mystery, the build-up is gradual and eventually, after trudging through half the book, my curiosity over what the Sampo would do to Oscar waned. This genre-defying slowness and length also makes it like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. So if you had issues with one, you might not like the other.
At its core, Witchcraft Couture is simply a “magic always comes with a price” cautionary tale. Oscar is gifted in the style of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Perfume by Patrick Süskind. Except, in Oscar’s case, the extra-ordinary in him is an external force, like a lifeline, making him an anti-hero not unlike Dorian Gray, whose power rests in his portrait. Witchcraft Couture is a unique turn on a classic tale – you can draw comparisons with everything from Doctor Faustus to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I love the way West has portrayed the artist. Oscar’s talent has a life of its own. His crises, his muses and frenzied work, his visionary ideas and the way he perceives the world through colour and texture, along with all his troubles characteristic of a genius – his inability to fit in, his mood swings, his obnoxious fantasies – the book conveys them remarkably aptly. West shows us both Oscar’s artistic point-of-view and his rational understanding of what the world thinks of him. He makes a very interesting impression that sticks with you. Katarina West displays the world of fashion in as much honest and gory detail as the world of publishing is shown in Rowling’s The Silkworm. One of my favourite descriptions is,
There is no vaccination against creative blocks. And nowhere else are they as devastating as in fashion which, unlike art or literature, dies the moment it is born.
For those who love lush prose, long winding monologues and character-driven stories, for fashion and art enthusiasts, I highly recommend Witchcraft Couture by Katarina West. This book made me mull over and ask myself the eternal unanswerable question: what matters more – plot, characters or a little of both. Which would you pick?