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Originally published Sunday, May 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Portrait": What a draw: a face-off of artist vs. critic

The best show in town could easily be the one going on inside Iain Pears' brain, synapses snapping, an electronic light show that must be nothing...

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Portrait"
by Iain Pears
Riverhead, 211 pp., $19.95

The best show in town could easily be the one going on inside Iain Pears' brain, synapses snapping, an electronic light show that must be nothing short of bewildering.

How else could there be an accounting for works like "An Instance of the Fingerpost," his genre-bending detective story of a murder in 17th-century England (1998), and then "The Dream of Scipio," a centuries-long investigative pursuit sweeping in its characters and vision (2002)?

And now there's "The Portrait," a monologue-esque, one-sided joust by artist against critic.

Whatever is Iain Pears thinking?

Whatever it is, a chief hope must be that he's not yet finished.

Pears' "Portrait" is set on an island off Brittany, where the chief protagonist, a painter of talent — and at one time of ascendant notice before he abandoned the London art scene — invites his nemesis, idol, mentor and fiend (no longer friend), London's foremost art critic, to a reunion between the two. The artist calls it a chance to finally paint the portrait he'd once begun of the critic who possessed him — when times were a bit better and the relationship between the two was at least a bit more stable. God knows why the critic chooses to make the journey, except for the urgings of a monumental ego.

Nonetheless, pay attention. Slip up in the tracking of this compact read and the impact of gathering danger is lost. Wander for a second and what vanishes is the wonderful and simple pleasure of saying, more than once, "uh oh."

If there is a must-read shelf in the halls of art schools everywhere, "Portrait" should be on it, if for no other reason than to serve as a lesson in "lest you forget yourself" for artist and critic alike. (Though an artist/reader of this book can be forgiven for reveling, for just a moment, in what must be a somewhat universal wish for a critic's comeuppance.)

Literarily, where else can Pears go? After "Portrait," told exclusively by the artist, and "Fingerpost," a hugely popular twister told in four sections by four different characters, and after earlier novels written in more popular form, where else?

Does it matter? Not when you are master of the best show in town.

Terry Tazioli is the travel editor at The Seattle Times.

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