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To write fictionally about visual artists is one of the novelist's most tantalizing, challenging temptations--with difficulties in either an interior or a more surface-y approach. Here, talented Australian writer Malouf (An Imaginary Life, Johnno) mixes the two approaches. On the one hand, Malouf tells the story of Australian hermit/painter Frank Harland's life through Frank's own boyhood memories: of his colorful, irresponsible father Clem; of Frank's guardianship over four younger brothers; of the crumbly estate, Killarny, on which they all grew up. But Malouf also views Harland through the voice of Phil Vernon, a young lawyer who has childhood memories of a Frank Harland painting--and of going with his father to meet the painter in his studio (an old movie house on a pier). Eventually Phil comes to compare Frank's family life and personal disengagement with his own. (Phil's family is flightier in its diversity.) And this switching of narrative reins ultimately becomes a little jostling. Yet there's vigor and freshness in the very raucousness of elements here, the paragraph-sized stories which Malouf litters about. Impressive, too, are his excellent descriptions of the Frank Harland painting-process underway. (""The breath of cattle came to him, the sound of a windmill creaking, a magpie's wing black-on-white, and its cry the colour of morning, smoke after flame. And there was a quilt, mostly green, that when darkness covered it like a second quilt showed its true colors. Hands had chosen them from a drawer full of remnants. The pads of his fingers felt for ridges. They were stitches when a needle had gone through with the force of a hand behind it, and behind that a body. He mimicked, as he brought his own colours into being, the movement of that hand."") So, though there's little story or drama in this quirky mosaic, Malouf's prose provides enough richness and panache to turn an essentially murky book into an often-pleasurable one--for a sophisticated, art-oriented readership.

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1984
ISBN: 0679776478
Publisher: Knopf