In a welcome change from tales of bog-Irish poverty, Madden portrays 21st-century Dublin populated by a thriving middle class—and by three visual artists who, beckoned by a higher calling, decline to participate at great personal cost.
The art world cognoscenti consider Roderic Kennedy’s large-scale abstract paintings Irish treasures equal to the Book of Kells. But for his artistic achievements Roderic paid dearly: a ten-year bout with alcoholism, a ruined marriage, three alienated daughters and the near destruction of Dennis, his devoted banker-brother. Finally stabilized and painting again, Roderic meets Julia Fitzgerald, a 25-year-old conceptual artist living on tea, toast and artistic resolve. Dennis is fearful; such commitments were Roderic’s undoing in the past. But Roderic seems content to remain just friends with Julia, a fellow traveler on an aesthetic journey—until Julia has a chance meeting with William Armstrong, a middle-aged lawyer who long ago studied art and now realizes that he has disregarded his vocation at his own peril. Julia’s commitment to helping William re-find his artistic way irrevocably changes the lives of all three. Madden (One by One in the Darkness, 1996, shortlisted for the Orange Prize, etc.) takes on the daunting task of dramatizing the creative life, and the sweep of her book is ambitious, making use of dialogue about artistic process, interior monologues on masterpieces in museums, memory, hallucinations and dreams, plus childhood flashbacks and the particulars of the contemporary lives and personal entanglements of each artist, all told through viewpoints that shift from chapter to chapter. If the narrative drive eventually stalls, it’s only because the author’s dedication to her subject—why artists choose the lives they lead—outruns the reader’s engagement with her characters: they’re so earnest that their ultimate actions leave little room for guesswork.
Still, an elegant novel of ideas, written by an author committed to her art.