A strange encounter with the natural world ignites an artist’s career.
On an English beach one otherwise unremarkable day in June 1976, Ray Eccles is struck on the head by a plummeting sea gull. That mishap inexplicably transforms the furloughed local government photocopy machine operator, so desperate for stimulation he believes an unexploded bomb beneath the sand “might be good company,” into an acclaimed artist, obsessed with capturing, in a series of portraits all entitled “She,” the image of the unknown woman who was the sole witness to the startling event that triggers his metamorphosis. Paige’s slim debut novel is the elegiac story of the enigmatic Ray and the handful of characters who gravitate to his equally mysterious work. They include George and Grace Zoob, sophisticated collectors of outsider art, who discover Ray’s “intimate, magical and strange” painting when he’s first producing it only on the walls of his small home in Southend-on-Sea, using everything from food to his own blood and semen; their daughter, Mira; and Jennifer Mulholland, Ray's inadvertent muse, who’s trapped in a companionable but sterile marriage, her quiet despair only deepened by the memory of the moment her life collided with Ray's at the seaside. Whether it’s Grace, who “felt herself being filled in, fashioned anew, a second, truer skin knitting itself around her like a healing wound” as she models for Ray, or Jennifer, aching with the realization, when she reflects on her long union, that “the longer they were married the less they knew each other,” Paige exercises impressive restraint in her emotionally precise portrait of ordinary people groping for something extraordinary to fill a hole in their lives. Only some of the novel’s principal characters even approach that goal, but as Paige depicts it in a moving climax at London’s Tate Modern gallery, great art can serve as a “direct, sensuous response to the world” that’s not only pleasing to the eye, but also profoundly engaging to the heart.
A gentle fable about the mystery of artistic creativity.