Woodward (A Curious Earth, 2008, etc.) extracts black comedy from the bumbling life of Kenneth Brill, a young artist of confused sexuality.
All English wit and writerly turn of phrase—"a brow ploughed with parallel wrinkles," "little coy nymphs rising from fairy pools"—Woodward’s first-person narrative begins late in World War II as protagonist Brill relates his life to a military attorney, Davies, an archetypal upper-class twit. Groin-shot and invalided home after a misconstrued homosexual seduction—"his spittle was sweetness in my mouth"—Lt. Brill’s being court-martialed not for that, but for painting landscapes around his family home, Swan’s Rest; he's charged with encoding his paintings to inform the Nazis about a planned airfield. Brill’s father, a former vaudevillian, grew prosperous selling human waste sludge as fertilizer, but the government now "will brush us aside like human dust." Brill offers childhood memories, then moves on to his studies at the Slade School of Art. There, he ironically faints at the sight of a nude male model—"All my artistic life I had wanted nothing more than to tackle the human form"—and then is expelled for hiring prostitutes to pose. A Slade instructor, half-Italian, half-Spanish Arturo Somarco—a flamboyant, duplicitous character—attempts seduction. Somarco later helps a drunken and politically ignorant Brill dry out at Hillmead Farm, a Fascist hotbed. Meanwhile, April Card, once Brill’s fellow instructor at prestigious Berryman’s Academy, "by some semi-conscious manipulation of my deeper internal divisions " ends up pregnant, a state reached after farce-filled sexual misadventures that begin with birdwatching in flagrante delicto. Woodward’s settings—time and place—are artfully rendered in England and during Brill’s Camouflage Corp North African desert service.
An erudite yet melancholy meditation on an artist’s life, Woodward’s tale, often a comedy of the absurd, is peopled by an abundance of colorful characters.