Vabella Publishing (2014)
Reviewed by Carole P. Roman for Reader Views (04/16)
“I Once Knew Vincent” is a stunning jewel of a book written by Michelle Rene. It is told through the eyes of Maria Hoornik, the six-year-old daughter of prostitute Sein, an impossibly honest little girl that was often the subject of Vincent Van Gogh’s charcoal drawings.
Rebuffed by his older cousin whom he loved desperately, Van Gogh moves in with Maria and her pregnant mother, much to his family’s shame. Struggling and starving, they create a semblance of a family, the first Maria has ever known. Guarded and distrustful, Van Gogh bonds with the serious and stern child, finding a kindred spirit. Maria grows to love Van Gogh, protecting and encouraging him with the same fierceness as the way she cares for her baby brother. Practical as well as sensible, she is the voice of reason in the turmoil of the bohemian household. Between Vincent’s insecure moodiness, and her mother’s addiction to liquor, Maria holds the small family together with her honesty and common sense.
Scattered through Rene’s stunning prose, are drawings of Maria, her brother, and her mother. These are not beautiful drawings, as Maria dolefully points out. They are the gritty reality of Vincent’s life. They represent his contribution to the revolution of art, the quest to turn away from the sugar-coated depiction of life, to the trend of presenting ugly reality, and like Maria’s hard truths, Vincent’s artwork reflected the honesty of his harsh existence.
Maria learns to read while she lives with Vincent. Vincent hones his talent. They use each other, becoming dependent, blossoming from the growth.
We know from history, that the little family falls apart. Van Gogh’s parent’s cut him off, disdainful of Sein and her past. Poverty drives Sein to prostitution, causing Vincent to abandon them all, perhaps propelling him to his final mental breakdown and the great explosion of art that preceded it.
“I Once Knew Vincent” by Michelle Rene is a wonderful book that shows how influence can cause the creation of art. Not unlike Tracey Chevalier, this is a charming book that chronicles a slice of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, using his hardscrabble life and the inhabitants of his universe as the catalysts of his great talent. This is a five-star read.