A dying artist meditates on the art of portraiture in the absence of her most famous subject: her husband.
Govinden’s (Black Bread White Beer, 2012, etc.) latest transposes his intellectual style to Middle America, where the British writer seems to have gotten bogged down in the art of imitation. This novel, about a famous artist on the edge of death who is preoccupied with the absence of a runaway husband, is an ostentatious bit of literary fiction. Our narrator is artist Anna Brown: “Born 1905. American portrait painter said to show the changing heart of the country conveyed through two life models.” Those subjects are her husband, John Brown, and their housekeeper, Vishni—although it boggles the mind why an artist would be famous for only painting portraits of her farmer husband her whole life. As the novel begins, John has inexplicably walked away to travel around looking at his wife’s portraits as some kind of self-revelatory exercise that mostly serves as the author’s excuse to examine the relationship between creator and muse. Through some kind of narrative sorcery, the mean-spirited Anna is able to explain exactly what John is up to, even as she speaks to him in a weird second-person present tense: “You will continue to sit and I will continue to paint you, because that, John, is why you are here.” Anna, meanwhile, is visited by her posh New York gallerist, Ben, who agrees to sit in as her subject in John’s absence. “I continue to look at a partially formed canvas; fragile and imprecise,” Anna tells us. “Just one untruth will ruin it: if I lie to myself, the painting will dissolve.” This highbrow novel wants badly to be the literary equivalent of an Andrew Wyeth painting but instead lands with a thud as a ghastly, plotless mess.
A pretentious novel designed to show off the author’s florid prose in lieu of telling a story.