Between the covers

Letters to Leonardo is an engaging read. It moves along at a steady pace, employs a first person narration that makes the story feel so much more immediate and intimate, and intersperses events with letters written by Matt to Leonardo da Vinci.

Matt has just turned 15 and is a budding young artist keen to expand on his talents and learn more about his craft. For his birthday he asks his father to buy him painting lessons. His father buys him a book on motorbikes. Matt gets another present for his birthday – a card from his mother. Only, as far as Matt knew, his mother had died in a car accident when Matt was five years old.

So begins this intriguing, emotional ride into Matt’s life and an exploration of the effects other people and their decisions can have on our own experiences and sense of self.

Matt’s Year 9 history teacher has set her students a task – to write a series of letters to a famous historical figure. Matt chooses Leonardo da Vinci, an artist for which he has an enormous amount of respect and a person he comes to realise he has a lot in common with. These letters, together with Troy’s (Matt’s best friend) assessments of Matt’s situation, provide humour and much-needed relief from the other events that take place.

As the story progresses we learn that Matt’s mother is very much alive, is also a painter, and has a mental illness; she is bi-polar and refuses to take medication as she feels it inhibits her creativity. Her erratic behaviour was the reason Matt’s father took his son away from his mother 10 years ago, but Matt is unconvinced by his father’s eventual explanation for such a tremendous lie and goes in search of a relationship with his mother.

This is a very moving story and one that is not often told. I was, however, a little concerned by the portrayal of bi-polar mental illness. In the story it is presented as quite one-dimensional and very much an extreme expression of the illness. A lot of what the mother does is disturbing and I can imagine that many people living with bi-polar might be offended by the portrayal of Matt’s mother (who comes across as very self-centred and disaffected by other people). A lot of the description of this character also relies on the stereotype of the ‘highly strung artist’, and I was a little disappointed by that.

Overall, however, while this is not a story with a happy ending, it is nevertheless an interesting tale and one that will hopefully generate some discussion about mental illness, friendship, truth and consequences.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.


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