Nestled in the Borinage mining region of Belgium is a small village named Petit Wasmes.The streets, miners huts and businesses, are covered in the soot of local mines. Miners only leave their workplace at the end of the day. They file down the street, all headed home. A man stands to the side, watching them with intense interest. This man is Vincent Van Gogh, the year is 1879 and he has yet to become the world famous painter he is destined to become. You see, before Van Gogh realized his true calling was to create artwork full of color and emotion, he spent a significant amount of time as a religious missionary in the Borinage, preaching to miners and their families. During this time he was cut off from communication from his brother Theo, whom he previously had a very close relationship with.
The purpose of The Season of Migration is to analyze what happened in the ten months from the time that Van Gogh arrived in the Borinage to the time he left. Theo visits Vincent very early in his post as a missionary. He tells Vincent that he thinks he is “idling”, not doing anything with his time other than preaching and sketching his surroundings. This greatly upsets Vincent; he’s completely convinced that his being in the Borinage to do God’s work is God’s will. Nevertheless, Vincent soldiers on, shedding his surroundings by giving away all his personal belongings and moving into a hut in the village. It’s from here that he reaches his darkest, accompanied only by a former mine canary and his fuzzy visions of the world.
If you are like most of the kids that went through school without any significant art history class, you know Van Gogh as the dude to cut off his ear to give to his girlfriend (or at least that’s how the story was told to me when I was in elementary level art class). Most people know him as the man who painted Starry Night or maybe Sunflowers, but the fact is that he was much more than just a painter. He started out life extremely poor, wanting to be a preacher as he grew up. He went to school in Amsterdam to study theology which is the road that led him to the story that we find in The Season of Migration. He would go on to paint some of the most beautiful landscape pieces of the post-impressionist era, even to create the piece that served as a cover image for one of David Sedaris’ novels. He was however a tortured soul, suffering from mental health issues until his untimely death at the age of 37.
The Season of Migration is Nellie Hermann’s second novel and be warned: this is nothing close to a sophomore slump. This novel is breathtaking. The story that Hermann tells about Van Gogh has such a fluidity and colorfulness it quickly becomes a book to savor; you’ll never wish for the end. Written mostly in letters from Vincent to his brother Theo, the reader will get a sense of where Van Gogh’s head was, at least as best that we can. Though it’s length is only about 250 pages, Hermann does an absolutely wonderful job telling this story; one that might not have had incredible importance before, but now will remain as intensely important for art fans.
Rating: 9.5/10 – The Season of Migration will undoubtedly be listed as one of the best books of 2015. Hermann’s telling of Van Gogh’s early life is riveting, beautiful and completely capturing of the readers attention.