First published on 6th February, 2005 in StarMag
By Blue Balliett
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
SEVERAL foreign reviews have called Chasing Vermeer a children’s Da Vinci Code, but I think the only thing the books have in common is that they encourage an interest in art, or at least certain artists and their works.
A number of portraits by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer appear in Blue Balliett’s novel, but none harbour secrets about Christianity or the, supposedly, true identity of biblical figures. There are no codes to crack, no puzzles to work out, no trails to follow in Chasing Vermeer. Rather, it becomes gradually clear that the mysteries in this book are solved by methods that are themselves mysterious. They remain, till the very end, unexplained phenomena.
As a result, some readers might close the book feeling short-changed. Personally, I was surprised that so little logic went into the mapping and unfolding of the plot. Pentominoes feature largely in the story, but although they are a mathematical tool, they are used in a strangely fanciful, even superstitious, manner.
There is much focus on Vermeer’s art. Seen through Balliett’s eyes and described in her words, the artist’s paintings are vibrantly beautiful things. The “real” portraits (reproductions in books and on the Internet) don’t come close to what one sees as a result of the author’s loving and vivid descriptions. In this way, and by feeding the reader with intriguing titbits about Vermeer’s life, Balliett succeeds in kindling one’s interest in him and his paintings.
However, I suspect kids might find pentominoes and Charles Fort more fascinating than the artist. Fort (1874-1932), a writer who delighted in strange events, plays a significant part inChasing Vermeer. But, like pentominoes, he and his work are used to further mystify the characters and the reader, and do not actually provide any clear answers.
The book’s strongest point is, I feel, its characters, especially Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee, the pre-teen, socially awkward protagonists. Refreshingly, neither is of Anglo-Saxon stock: Calder is part Asian-Indian, while Petra has African, European and Middle-Eastern forbears. Both are intelligent, creative, articulate and – in each other’s eyes – “weird”!
Then there is their unconventional teacher, Ms Hussey, who encourages her students to question everything and come up with their own spin on things. It is partly thanks to her that Calder and Petra take an active interest in the disappearance of a Vermeer painting that’s on loan to a local museum.
Although their interest in the crime is initially awakened by uncanny dreams and weird coincidences, it is only when it becomes evident that Ms Hussey is in some way involved in the incident and in danger that the pair make a pact to find the artwork at all costs.
Elderly Mrs Sharpe, with her furtive air, cryptic remarks and scathing sense of humour, is also fascinating. But as sharp-witted as she is, her style of mystery-solving is, disappointingly, as whimsical as everyone else’s.
At least Brett Helquist’s illustrations provide readers with quite a meaty puzzle to sink their teeth into. I suggest saving it for last as it’s quite time-consuming and distracting. Young sleuths will also enjoy decoding some letters Calder receives from his best friend, who has moved to another state. It’s a pity that these brainteasers have nothing to do with Balliett’s actual story. Perhaps she (and Helquist) provided them as a trade-off!
It’s such a pleasure seeing Helquist’s drawings here. I especially love Petra, with “her fierce triangle of hair”. Children’s novels (and even many adult ones) used to be illustrated as a matter of course up to about 30 years ago. But economics seems to have put an end to that, apart from rare cases, like the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, also illustrated by Helquist.
I’m looking forward to Balliett’s next book, another mystery, featuring Petra and Calder, and ghosts! Once again, Helquist will provide the artwork.
I recommend Chasing Vermeer, but not because it’s the most spectacular children’s mystery ever written (any Famous Five story does better in this aspect), but because I think it contains some really marvellous writing. Balliett does particularly well when she writes from Petra’s perspective, offering a view of the world that is delightfully reflective, full of trembling, inspired wonder, and confused but intense emotion.
Finally, it’s pretty wonderful when a couple of non-conformist geeks like Petra and Calder are cast as heroes. In the tradition of E.L. Konigsburg and Madeleine L’Engle, Balliett celebrates and empowers social misfits. As most youngsters go through periods of self-doubt, this book and others like it are a welcome and refreshing alternative to the recent barrage of teen novels that make too much of being beautiful, well-groomed and sexually active!