Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Life Drawing: a novel

Life Drawing

It is rare that one reads a soliloquy on a long term of relationship, but Life Drawing is just that. Gus (short for Augusta) and Owen have been together for a quarter of a century, and their relationship is coloured by grief, a betrayal, and their inability to have children.

The novel begins with the fact of Owen’s death, then goes back in time to tell the story which lead up to it. A new neighbour has moved in, disrupting their rural solitude, and the resulting relationships have deep ramifications. This structure gives the book the shape of a thriller, if a rather beautiful and sedate one. (And I predicted the ending less than halfway through: not very thrilling, perhaps.)

However, the plot is not the point of this book. What makes it special is the portrait of a long marriage, seen through the eyes of Gus. Intimacy and solitude are woven together; the partners negotiate with and allow for each other in a careful, thoughtful dance. Gus observes her husband and herself with an acute eye, moving between love and anger, guilt and frustration, affection and jealousy. At times she has the eye of a lover, at other times, a maternal eye. Their sex life ebbs and flows, from non-existent to raunchy; from passionate connection to ‘the sex that’s like the decent enough music you listen to because the drive is so long and it’s the only radio station you can pick up’. Like every marriage, they navigate difficult emotional terrain; they interpret each other’s behaviour; they talk and keep quiet; they makes mistakes and choose kindness; they eat lunch.

As well as the marriage, Gus’s relationships with their new neighbour, Alison; a former student, Laine; and her father and sister are charted with intelligence and restraint. So too are the long-term effects of betrayal, guilt and grief. These depictions felt very true: closely observed, honest, and wise, and it is for this that I recommend the book.

My only wish was that it had ended differently. The denouement felt unnecessary, pandering to the more sensational expectations of a television audience rather than hewing to the quiet wisdom of the rest of the book. It detracted from what was otherwise a very thoughtful meditation. I’d have loved to have read this book one page short of chapter 21, and had the preceding story shaped accordingly. However, in the final chapter, Gus posits different ways the story might have continued. This reader, then, suggests reading this otherwise moving novel, but deciding on one’s own, preferred, outcome. I’d go with the last paragraph of the novel, perhaps.

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