"Alchemy of a Blackbird" | Reviewed by Susan Ferguson
“Alchemy of a Blackbird,” by Claire McMillan, is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of Surrealist Painters Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, 20th Century artists.
The women meet at the International Exposition du Surrealisme in Paris in 1939, where their paintings are displayed next to each other. They become fast friends and spend much time together. It is Leonora who introduces Remedios to Tarot Cards. Soon Remedios becomes a student of Sabina Cherugi who teaches them how to read the cards and discover the supposed magic within.
Remedios and Leonora become avid students and users of Tarot cards, and rely on the cards to help them with life decisions. The two women, along with their famous lovers, live in Paris surrounded by intellectuals like Andre Breton, who doesn’t take the two women seriously. It is the women who find jobs to support their partners and their intellectual, but penniless, rhetoric. Remedios works for Oscar Sanchez, painting de Chirico forgeries.
As the Nazis begin to invade France, artists and intellectuals become targets. Leonora and her lover and fellow painter, Max Ernst, leave for the countryside. Unfortunately, Remedios and her lover, poet Benjamin Peret, stay. Both end up in prison due to his communism and her association with him. When Sanchez bails her out, she is taken to a safe house on the Riviera.
Peggy Guggenheim owns a villa on the Riviera where she provides refuge for artists until they acquire the necessary traveling papers. Remedios is reunited with Benjamin, Andre and Max (who is now with Peggy, their benefactor). Leonora is rumored to be in an asylum. Once again it falls upon Remedios to support Benjamin and herself. She begins forging travel documents for those wishing to leave France. When it is finally her and Benjamin’s turn to escape, they flee to Mexico.
In Mexico, Remedios and Leonora reunite. With help from the Tarot they are able to break free from their famous lovers and form a partnership. Once free of their burdensome relationships, they blossom, becoming the two greatest collaborators and icons of the surrealist movement. The Tarot allows their creativity to flow, they become true, respected surrealist artists.
Each chapter in “Alchemy of a Blackbird” ends with a Tarot card. Readers learn about the meaning of the card and characteristics associated with it. Each card also is tied to a character in the novel, adding some fun to the story. Readers who are fans of painters Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, or the surrealist movement are sure to enjoy this novel. The story also might make readers curious about Tarot cards and their meanings.