A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney was on my TBR for two reasons: first, I know the author, and second, I knew it involved at least one fictional quilter, and I love reading about quilting. It’s mostly a ghost story, though not a straightforward one; the ghost’s story is a puzzle which you grow to understand in bits and pieces of information coming from different times and settings and characters.
The town of Shimmer is surrounded by Chesapeake marsh, in coastal Maryland, the Eastern Shore. Art graduate student Xavier Wentworth goes there to study their long tradition of African-American “outsider” artists at the local Whitby-Grayson Museum, especially quilter Hazel Whitby and painter Shadrach Grayson. Xavier himself has moved from making art to writing about it.
I was very much amused that Xavier calls Whitby’s improvisational quilts “tapestries,” as if he can’t bear to use such a utilitarian name for fabric art. He points out that the quilts “aren’t functional.” Perhaps he associates quilt with Craft rather than Art, and places Craft lower in his artistic hierarchy, as his academic advisor does with casual verbal brutality. Perhaps he just wants to fight against a common perception that quilters, or at least Whitby, can’t be artists. Both of his academic advisors, the white gay man Giordano and the Black woman Devine, herself an artist, are doubtful Xavier will find enough to write about in Shimmer. Giordano calls the project “bourgeois mysticism” and Devine calls it “an art movement made up of Magical Negroes.” (For the record, I think the Art/Craft binary is useless except to expose the prejudices of those who are determined to force work into smug hierarchies of validity. But I digress…I could digress on this for a really really long time, but I won’t.)
As you might guess from the title, color is a huge part of this book, especially a vibrant shade between pink and purple that is the major focus of Whitby’s work. However, Gidney’s descriptions of the town, the people’s clothing, and their houses all feature lots and lots of color description, emphasizing its thematic importance. The fuchsia color flows through the whole story and through the obsessive art created by a sequence of artists who live in Shimmer.
My favorite thing about the book turned out to be the vividly drawn cast of characters, who get their own point of view chapters, some set in the 1860s, some set in the present, some set a decade or two earlier as we see events in the present-day characters’ pasts. All of these pieces gradually make a picture of the ghost and her origins, much like the quilts made by Hazel and the collages made by Tamar. I loved the small insights I had throughout the story.
If you’ve never tried Gidney’s work, this is a terrific place to start.