Alison Habens, The True Picture (Life Is Amazing, 2021) 261 pp.

How the story started

A chance conversation with Father Hollins in St Swithun’s Church, Southsea bought the cold statue of St Veronica to life for Alison Habens. She discovered the origins of the name vera icon (true picture), and immediately wanted to tell her tale as if it were happening today. Veronica, the woman encased in stone had found her voice.

More than the average Christmas story

I read this over Christmas (it was a perfect present) and unwrapped Veronica’s travels through many lands, without showering myself in shop-bought glitter, although there is a pretty strong vein of commercial enterprise woven into the telling. The novel follows Veronica, a successful dealer of rare purple dyes and silks, on a journey both physical and spiritual after deciding to give up everything to follow a charismatic healer. From the very first page I was submerged in the bustling colours, sights, and sounds of first century Phoenicia. Alison's research and attention to detail treated me to a 360-degree virtual tour, following Jesus and his disciples spreading the word of God and Veronica’s slow transformation as she joined his flock. Although their actual existence could be argued either way, the novel provides a living, breathing case to answer. 

She started as a temple temptress (not a waitress in a cocktail bar) brighter than the men she seduced but physically weaker when outnumbered and brutalised:

Is that my real voice? It sounds different, the tone neither a pitch nor a bitch; its source not the tits nor the teeth with which Venus empowers her priestesses.

The True Picture, (p. 78)

Her spirited determination to follow a very different man led to her total rebirth:

Does he [Jesus] look with the eyes of the whole wide world, or the blindly-beating heart in the darkness within every single person?

The True Picture, (p. 80)

Finding a voice

This woman literally sang her own song and did not choose the easy path. She fascinated me. Her stories told in song permeates the novel, so much so that the language and images of those haunting tunes filled my head for days.

At first the modern phrases felt strangely out of place housed within the ancient land and characters of Phoenicia but I liked the pinpoint focus of the protagonist, Veronica, a wealthy business woman trading in purple dye. Her passion switched allegiance from expensive jewellery and purple silks to a mesmerising man called Jesus whose words lit up the dark like her beloved amethysts and eventually ripped the gleam of hard currency from her eyes. 

I have never walked into a new place without money to spend. I could not feel more vulnerable if I were walking in naked. Clothed in cash, I’ve flashed my wealth around Tyre, easy as smiling; now I wear a worried frown. Where is my power if not in a purse?

The True Picture, (p. 82)

The Phoenicians stripped bare

The True Picture surprised, intrigued and educated me. Its raw humour slapped me around the face like a northern stand-up routine. Basic urges, physical, spiritual and sexual, are delivered in detailed, earthy, tones with the comedic accuracy of an Irish builder:

“With your curves you will never fit through the entranceway to heaven…”               I think he is upset by my parting verse, shouted through a red mist, about how easy it must be for him, on the other hand, to fit his tiny manhood between the gates of paradise.

The True Picture, (p. 76)

Alison’s exquisitely lyrical writing elevated the story, protected the reader’s eyes from the occasional violence but allowed the truth to seep through with language cloaked in purple that runs like a life force throughout the novel. 

Slower paced but rich pickings

This is not a book I would have naturally picked up as I prefer fast-paced thrillers, but although the novel meanders across many lands and down busy alleyways it included fascinating details of everyday life for women of that time. Like many women on social media today, Veronica was originally obsessed with, clothes and make up before her conversion:

I lay my alabastrotheca* on the table and begin to do my make-up. In this carrying case, locked in the strongbox with my money overnight, are all the pots and flasks and alabaster jars that I need to be me. I start with a little ground horn to enamel my teeth; go on with ochre or, in times of need, the lees of wine to redden my lips; and darken my eyebrows with ashes or, in flush times, powdered antimony.

The True Picture, (p. 17)

*You can see Alison's thoughts on alabastrotheca here.

I found I adjusted to the pace and enjoyed the rich scenery the story offered so much so that I hardly referred to the excellent glossary at the back. The True Picture is full of religious markers and is Alison's area of specialism but you don't have to live in a beautifully converted church, like the author, to appreciate the depth of historical detail running throughout this drama. Alison likens the fear of the old guard witnessing Jesus’s many followers to fields of wheat.

It isn’t just that we’re women, and foreign, and were disabled, once. It’s because we love Jesus. We are his harvest. The priestly images are quivering like a field of wheat with a storm coming…                                                                                               It’s the praying they can’t stand. When we all whisper the same words together, polished now and smooth as our purple stone, it rumbles like the law. Not as in the books their scribes read from. The living word thundering. We are the sign Jesus is coming back.

The True Picture, (p. 179)

A true picture? It's certainly Veronica's truth, sung from a refreshingly female viewpoint. 

More from Alison

Alison has a PhD on the subject of divine inspiration in literature, runs a research project into life-writing for wellbeing, is a tutor at Skyros Writers’ Lab and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Her life sounds like a story too. She lives in a beautifully converted church on the Isle of Wight and commutes to work by hovercraft. Other novels by Alison Habens include Dreamhouse, Family Outing, Lifestory, Pencilwood, and The Muse’s Tale. SeeAlison’s website for more information.

 

Jackie Green is a successful short story writer who moved to Southsea after retiring and was delighted to discover the city was alive with creatives. Winning the Portsmouth Short Story competition with her first entry encouraged her to complete a full length novel which she co-wrote with Brian Bold under the pseudonym Jack Bold. Entitled Quota, it is a near future thriller written before the pandemic that reflects some of the alarming issues faced today.