Toronto author Antanas Sileika turns to his Lithuanian roots with Woman in Bronze, his first novel after two collections of stories. Farmboy Tomas Stumbras is a "godmaker"; he carves statues of saints and the Virgin Mary out of wood. After glimpsing sculptures through the window of a Vilnius museum, he sets his mind on going to Paris to become a sculptor.
As head of the Humber School for Writers, Sileika should know his way around a sentence, and the prose here--understated but skillfully written--delivers. It's in the plotting where this novel falters occasionally. Too often, Sileika anticipates plot transitions like a truck driver downshifting for an approaching hill. And while he has included interesting real-life personalities, most of them just show up, wave at the camera, and leave. When Tomas departs Lithuania for Paris, he stumbles into the encampment of the great Polish hero Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Pilsudski takes a shining to him and sets him up with an apprenticeship in Warsaw. Inexplicably, Sileika skips five years ahead to after Tomas has arrived in Paris, encapsulating those years into a four-page flashback. He does not even describe the sculptor's arrival in Paris, although it had been Tomas's goal for most of his life.
In Paris, Tomas meets Josephine Baker, who gets him a job at the Folies Bergíƒ ¨re. He studies art and gets entangled in the politics and romances of the art scene while trying to find his voice as a sculptor. His artist roommates represent the available extremes: Alphonse is a printmaker, devoted to an old, perhaps even out-of-date style; Sorrel embraces cubism, believing his route to fame is to stand on the shoulders of giants like Pablo Picasso.
Tomas just wants to sculpt, and the rest of the book is about his journey to becoming the artist he wants to be. It will cost him nearly everything--and everyone--he holds dear. Although it ventures into melodramatic territory, Woman in Bronze is a satisfying read with much to offer readers interested in 1920s Paris and Eastern Europe.