When Vincent Van Gogh infamously sliced off his ear, the local newspaper reported that he brought it to a brothel and gave it to a prostitute named Rachel. Little else is known about Rachel, although some art historians believe that she appears in a painting or two. In Sheramy Bundrick’s Sunflowers, Van Gogh’s story is told from Rachel’s point of view, with the author imaging that the couple’s relationship was not just personal, but romantic.
Most things I’ve read about Van Gogh focus on his mental illness (which some experts now believe may have been bipolar disorder) to the point of making him a raving lunatic. However, this novel focuses more on the man himself—a sentimental soul who worried about disappointing his beloved brother and who felt insecure about the fact that his ahead-of-its-time art sold less than those of his famed contemporaries. Many of the characters are based on real figures from Van Gogh’s life, including the Roulin, Ginoux, and Gachet families, who were the subjects of some of his works.
I felt like the story started a bit slow, but I eventually got so engrossed that I hoped it would turn out differently in the end, even though I knew it wouldn’t. Van Gogh’s eventual decline is handled sensitively and realistically given the time, and the scenes in the asylum had me wondering how his life and art would have been affected if he’d had access to modern medicine. I also spent a lot of time looking up some of his lesser-known works that are described in the book.
All in all, a very satisfying read. But I maintain that the best historical fiction about Van Gogh is “Vincent and the Doctor” from Doctor Who.