Life Drawing by Robin Black

This is the story of Augusta and Owen who have retreated into the country to pursue their artistic ambitions but whose life together is turned upside down by the arrival of a new neighbour. Problem number one: I was never convinced either of them had any artistic talent. Owen is such a dull feckless man whose dialogue is so wooden and banal that it was impossible to imagine him as an underappreciated cult writer. Augusta too comes across as a dilettante artist. You have the feeling both are burying their heads in the sand and were they to have proper jobs they might refrain from their obsessive tiresome naval gazing. Problem number two: I never felt the author was in control of her material. Augusta has earlier betrayed her husband but he has forgiven her, though, perhaps as a consequence, he is contending with writer’s block. So, we presume the novel is about the diminishing returns of marriage or the “corrosive effects of betrayal”. But then all kinds of disconnected themes are shoehorned into the novel. Augusta is obsessed with dead WW1 soldiers and they are her next painting project. I never had a clue what this was all about. She is also obsessed with her dead mother and dead sister both of whom died young. And she is coping with her father who has dementia. All of a sudden the novel seems to be about departure and absence and remembering/forgetting. But for me she never manages to connect all these threads. She’s constantly tossing in stuff that we’re supposed to believe has a thematic profundity but for me it was random and messy. The English neighbour one night kills a doe with her reckless driving. Her daughter then arrives at the house who is portrayed as a bit of an innocent. But the connection between the two events is not only gratuitous but all wrong. The mother doesn’t kill innocence. The naval gazing couple do that. Problem number three: My Oscar for most irritating male character I’ve encountered this year goes to Updike’s rabbit; my vote for most irritating female character goes to Augusta, the narrator of this novel. Crikey is she tiresome! And her husband isn’t much better. Possibly the most boring unconvincing writer ever fictionalised. Problem number four: The relentless ellipses in the fragmented dialogue drove me bonkers. No one could speak without dramatic pauses. “I think…What I mean is…Though, of course…I understand how you…feel.” This constant striving to pump up the volume became almost comical eventually.

Often while reading this I couldn’t help thinking of the hugely successful novels I’ve read about marital strife – A Change Of Climate by Hilary Mantel and Freedom by Franzen for example – and how thin and unwise this was in comparison. 201504-paperback-life-drawing-949x1356

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