The Man who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes by Dan Holloway

For me this is a strange and compelling story. I can’t claim to understand it, but that seems somehow unimportant. I consider myself lucky that I don’t have personal experience of the emotional dissociation or grief which is central to the narrative. Throughout, I grappled to find points of connection between my own experience and the world created by Holloway. It was disturbing, often challenging, uncomfortable and at times unpleasant but it was a very valuable reading experience.  It forced me to think on more than one level all the way through. I was working at the edge of my understanding to make sense of the story, but I kept on working. I wanted to know more. I needed to keep connecting with it. I like to be challenged in my reading and this certainly challenged me. It was a Masterclass in challenging and I will think differently as a result of reading it.

The novel seems to cry out for interpretation rather than analysis. It is a workout for the brain. For some people the content will, I am sure, be all too familiar. For me it was an insight into another world. A world I’m glad I have never had to face. A world I hope I will never have to face.

Like quantum theory, I suspect that if you think you understand this story you don’t, because on one level the ‘story’ is going to be different for each individual reader. And that’s its strength.  It is a reflection ON narrative. I’m not sure if you’d describe this as a post-modern narrative, but I am sure that one of the important things it does is reflect on the relationship between individual and universal. There’s a metaphysical element to the whole thing that made me feel I could only offer my interpretation on the narrative, but which reassured me that this was okay. I don’t need to convince you that this is a great read, I just need to tell you what it meant to me. It will mean something different to you, I’m sure, and that will be okay. All points of view are valid. For some people it will be too much, too painful, too strange. For others it will provide enlightenment, or understanding and for others a confirmation of their own experience.

For me the power of the narrative is in the emotion. I can’t decide whether it’s more appropriate to call this an essay on, a eulogy to or an exploration of pain and grief. But it is a powerful exemplar of these emotions. Raw pain is exuded through the novel. And it’s unsettling, because the emotion is so real that it makes me want to ‘believe’ the story, even though the post modern style denies this possibility. I even tried to find the youtube clip!  I believed in it and I was shocked by it, and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t ‘real’ in some sense. Because of course in some sense it is real. Just not my reality. And I commend the bravery of a writer who dares to explore and reveal such dark places.  The experience of  Pain is universal but pain is also a profoundly individual experience and it is on this individual level that Holloway focuses.

While the plot seemed to be peppered with non-sequitors, it was much less important to me to ‘understand’ what was happening than to reflect upon my own relationship to it.  I think the Nomoto-Byfield conjecture was quite clever in this respect. It was one of a number of seemingly disconnected elements which added a depth allowing the reader to develop a personal interpretation through questioning the text.  I found I was less questioning of the plot and more questioning in relation to the novel: What are we looking for? What have we lost?

And the shifting narrative voice seemed to make this a valid interpretation – for me at least.  For the narrator everything seems to be a reflection of the loss of Emma.The pain of losing Emma.  The grief after Emma’s disappearance. This permeates the entire novel. It’s palpable and potent and gave me some small insight into what must be a horrific lived reality. The bravery of the writer in tackling this (whether it would be from personal experience or not) is evident. I am in awe of someone who can write with such power about pain.

And I also received a powerful message, relating to the way one can interpret novels and the world in general.  Holloway got me thinking about the question of reality is a virtual construct, of how we make sense of a senseless world and of dissociation as a part of both grief  and in general.

If you want to give your brain a workout and you’re not afraid to go to some dark places, read this novel.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips 

The Man Who.. is available in Kindle format

Find out more about Dan Holloway


2 thoughts on “The Man who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes by Dan Holloway

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful review. And I’m so glad you picked up on what for me were the things I was trying to communicate – our disconnection from the world and attempt to reconnect with it, and the importance of pain, not as a concept but as a tangible thing, a character in the book as it is in our lives, and the terrible possibility that the only way we can punch our way outside of the bubble of disconnection. and the even more frightening possibility that “it only hurts the first time” and that the moment of possibility may come and go without our knowing anything other than that our lives have been punctured by a wound that will never heal, slowly suppurating what we once thought of as our future.

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