PREVIEW: ‘Vincent & Sien’ by Silvia Kwon

When Silvia Kwon visited the Van Gogh Museum on a family holiday to Europe, a quick visit turned into a whole day of discovery as Silvia was captivated by the trove of information, and became particularly fascinated by the little-known romantic relationship between a young Vincent Van Gogh and Sien Hoornik, Vincent’s model, muse and partner for a period of around 18 months in the early 1880s.

In Kwon’s meticulously researched and beautifully imagined second novel, Vincent & Sien, we are transported back to 1882, to a cold winter’s night in The Hague. We meet a pregnant Sien, a starving and poverty-stricken prostitute and mother on the brink of giving up, who is rescued by a struggling young artist, Vincent Van Gogh, entranced by Sien’s strength of character and lived hardships. Vincent convinces Sien to become his live-in model before falling passionately in love with her, despite the disparities in their social status and Sien’s line of work. He promises shelter, food, care and a life more prosperous than Sien has ever known before, but all on the basis of receiving an allowance sent to him by his younger brother and art dealer, Theo. As the relationship and connection between Vincent and Sien grows, so does the hostility felt from Sien and Vincent’s respective families which threatens to tear them apart. This is not only a story of love, art, identity and acceptance, but also a story of survival.

Kwon’s novel was inspired by a collection of surviving letters penned by Vincent Van Gogh, mostly addressed to his brother. These letters themselves have a place in the novel, often representing a lifeline determining whether, or not, there would be food to eat at the end of the day. However, it is also through these letters that Kwon was able to gain some insight to the passionate but, often, fraught relationship between Vincent and Sien, albeit a sanitised one littered with gaps and uncertain detail. In the absence of Sien’s own testimony – as Sien herself was illiterate – Kwon has “given Sien a voice beyond Van Gogh’s pen” as she reimagines their story from the perspective of the esteemed artist’s muse. This is a stunning novel – one for art lovers, romantics and historians!

The Malcolm Bradbury Trust would like to say a huge congratulations to Silvia, the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholar on the MA Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) at the UEA in 2017/18. Kwon, along with her husband and son, moved from Melbourne, Australia, and settled in Norwich where she studied at the UEA. Kwon was also able to undertake a huge amount of ‘on the ground’ research both in the UK and in the Netherlands, whilst simultaneously writing a first draft of Vincent & Sien before returning to Melbourne.

We are delighted to present a first look at Vincent & Sien with an excerpt of chapter 1 below. To find out more about Silvia’s novel, her writing journey and experience studying for her MA, check out our interview with Silvia here!

Author/Copyright Holder: Silvia Kwon
University of East Anglia, MA Creative Writing (Prose Fiction), 2017 – 2018
Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship