Self-Portrait with Nothing by Aimee Pokwatka is a psychological mystery-thriller that uses a fascinating approach to multiple universes that can be crossed through the impact of art. At the opening of the story, we learn that Ula Frost, world-renowned artist whose work is compared to that of Frida Kalo and Georgia O’Keefe, is missing. At least she seems to be missing. It turns out that Ula has gone to great lengths to keep everyone at a distance, and only one person, her intermediary with potential clients named Gordon, has been in regular contact by phone. And even he never knows where she is calling from and hears from her only once a week. After he fails to get a call for three weeks, he goes to the police.
Gordon has been sending Ula requests for portraits from thousands of people, only a few of which have ever been granted. The reason for this huge demand, aside from the intrinsic value of a portrait by the great painter, is that each portrait is rumored to open a portal to another universe and let in a doppelganger of the painting’s subject. When Gordon himself had his portrait painted some time earlier – well, I won’t spoil it for you – he was left profoundly shocked and moved by the whole experience and more than ever committed to helping Ula Frost in any way he could.
The real story gets going when we meet Pepper Rafferty, a young professor seeking tenure, who specializes in the forensic analysis of human bones. She has worlds of ideas and hypothetical selves rushing through her imagination but is rather awkward with people and limited by her difficulty expressing things in words. Whereas Ula Frost seems able to open doors to other universes through her painting, Pepper imagines multiple versions of herself in other universes who solve problems that stump her in this one and come to much better, or sometimes worse, outcomes.
One of the things she has not been able to say to anyone, even her husband Ike, whose patience is always strained by trying to communicate with Pepper, is that she is the abandoned daughter of Ula Frost. As an infant, she was left on the doorstep of two veterinarians who became her loving and supportive Moms. Pepper has never wanted to have anything to do with the mother who abandoned her and cut off all communication, but events make it impossible for her to keep this secret or to avoid searching for Ula.
A young writer named Scott shows up in her university lab one day to interview her about the great painter, but she dodges him for a while. Then a lawyer comes to her home and tells her she is the sole heir of Ula’s estate, if, in fact, Ula is dead. At this point, she has to reveal to Ike that the reason for this visit is that she is Ula’s daughter. Ike is shocked to find that she has been keeping this secret from him for so long, and their problems talking to each other become an important theme of the story.
Soon enough, a couple of thuggish guys from something called the Everett Group show up to strong arm her and Ike into sharing Ula’s secrets with them. Before long, Pepper sets off with Scott, despite her mistrust of him and his motives, to track down a property in London that is part of her bequest. That leads to clues that take them to Wroslaw in Poland where the main action takes place. I can’t go into any detail without giving too much away, but the question of Ula’s existence or death becomes more and more complex, while the Everett Group guys are hot on Pepper’s heels. And everyone wants to get hold of a particular painting of Ula’s – the Self-Portrait with Nothing.
This story makes exceptional use of the idea of multiple universes, each of which splits off from the present at key decision points in people’s lives. But it’s far from space opera, as in The Graven series. It has to do with the emotional needs of people who struggle to communicate and find fulfilling relationships. Their hope is that they can pull another version of themselves into this world from a different one, but that means the people forced out of their own universe through the magic of Ula’s paintings have been torn from everything they know and want to get back where they belong. The Everett Group, which has some pretty powerful people connected to it, wants to get hold of the special knowledge of how Ula’s art works for their own dangerous purposes. So there’s a lot of pursuit and escape and constantly surprising discoveries as new aspects of Ula’s world come into play.
All that makes for a good thriller plot, but what I was most drawn to in Self-Portrait with Nothing was Pepper’s own limitless capacity for imagining other selves in other worlds. Sometimes that ability freezes her action in the here and now, but often it reveals a rich inner life that she can never quite share with others. Her blocking of words to express what she most needs has its biggest impact on Ike, and one of the most endearing aspects of their relationship is the clipped dialogue they manage through the rushed brevity of message apps by phone. These are the means they use to finally start communicating what they really mean to each other, and I love the terse language of need and feeling that comes through as Pepper talks to him from her impossible situation in Poland.
I found this to be a deeply satisfying and original novel, but not at all what traditional fans of science fiction are probably looking for. Self-Portrait with Nothing explores radical ideas of self-hood, identity, loneliness and longing in the context of an exciting mystery-thriller. And it examines the idea of stepping between universes as the complicated and dangerous experience it would have to be.
My thanks to Tordotcom and Net Galley for an advance review copy of Self-Portrait with Nothing as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.