Review: CS Richardson’s Novel ‘All the Color in the World’

Toronto’s CS Richardson attracted readers worldwide with his debut book, 2007’s “The End of the Alphabet.” In particular, the unique existential situation of the hero of this elegantly breezy novel (Ambrose Zephyr, described as “on time, on a budget, realistic, reasonable”) inspired a comprehensive response to Richardson’s delightful account.

The modest protagonist of “All the Color in the World,” Richardson’s third novel, is no less compelling. Through the gaunt, elliptical, and extremely artful (and artful) chapters of “All the Color in the World,” Richardson touches on Henry’s arduous decades. A lonely but creative child who becomes an art history scholar, he experiences loss and trauma in heartbreaking abundance.

In counterpoint to some 120 chapters chronicling Henry’s decades (each chapter averaging half a page in length), Richardson poses equally economical musings on art and history. “To produce natural vermilion…”, begins one; another opens with “Charon obol (from obolos, a designation of ancient Greek currency) describes money placed over, sometimes inside, the mouth of a dead person before burial. There are chapters on the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, the invention of Crayola crayons (1902), and Sebald Beham’s copperplate engraving “Pacientia” (which dates from 1540). While brief, commentary on a topic—whether it’s “The Wizard of Oz” or Picasso’s “Guernica”—manages to be bite-sized without becoming corny.

As for how to approach this riot of eclecticism, Richardson offers clear guidance. The first chapter of “Color” mentions Japanese zuhitsu (“a style of writing characterized by both connected essays and disparate ideas”) and the hodgepodge literary style of Renaissance Italy, defined as “a salad of many ideas” and “an informal miscellany containing everything from landscape sketches to currency exchange rates, medicinal recipes to family trees”.

Richardson’s “salad” features no recipes or exchange rates, and his miscellany is formally contained. An art history lecturer whose bible is Helen Gardner’s “Art Through the Ages” (1926), Henry pores over and finds solace in the tome’s wealth of images, text, and ideas; most likely, he supplements his personal copy with art history tidbits that relate or comment on his circumstances in key ways. The pains (and also the joys) of his unstable childhood, the blanket of debilitating anguish over his wife’s death and the ongoing torment of his experiences as a soldier during World War II, therefore, are mediated through Henry’s educational activities.

From “August 31, 1916. Happy Birthday” (in chapter 13) to correspondence in the late 1960s (ending at the final chapter, which is exactly 15 words long) “Colour” studies a man struck – and struck again – by fatal circumstances. Richardson’s hymn to Henry’s resistance also serves as an intoxicating celebration of art, an act and form that the author respects in all facets of him.

Brett Josef Grubisic lives on Salt Spring Island, BC. He published his first paid book review in 1994 and is the author of five novels.


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