Life Drawing by Robin Black

20th May 2014

Life Drawing
Robin Black's debut novel comes after a string of literary successes, from fellowships to being shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Prize. But did our reviewer feel the love for Life Drawing?

The story centres on the fractured marriage of Owen and Gus (Augusta), a writer and painter respectively who have moved from the city to a remote country house and are adjusting well to their solitude, until they acquire an unexpected new neighbour in the form of Alison.

Their relationship with her deepens, and her presence seemingly helps to paper over some of the cracks from Gus’ past fall from grace (and the reason for their marital problems), until another new arrival looks set to unravel all of that.

So far, so domestic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this is no average piece of domestic fiction; Robin Black writes with precision and depth, and isn’t afraid to stray into some dark places – which she navigates with some skill – all the while maintaining a distinct, intelligent and sophisticated voice that does her ample credit.

Yes, this is an artfully crafted novel, with a great prose style, and some of the sections regarding the creative process provide a compelling insight into the mind of an artist, especially the difficulties surrounding inspiration and perseverance with a new project, and the concept of creating art not as a profession but as an escape, as penance and as a gift.

But – aside from an intriguing beginning, and a pacy final forty pages which reach a satisfactory climax – that’s where praise for this novel ends.

A page-turner this is not - unless your idea of a wild time is a series of dinners interspersed with some painting, various subtext-filled dialogue... and a whole lot of navel-gazing. A page-turner this is not – unless your idea of a wild time is a series of dinners interspersed with some painting, various subtext-filled dialogue, (there isn’t nearly enough dialogue on the whole, however its quality does improve dramatically in the last thirty pages) and a whole lot of navel-gazing.

At least there’s a decent structure, with lots of paragraphs to break up the bleak, overly dramatic reflections on life. Within the first twenty pages the narrator, Gus, tells us that happiness is “illusory” and that “daily life was a pale gray thing.” Within the first forty she asks “what exactly is the fucking point?” (Italics hers).

This level of grim reflection pervades the novel with an Eeyore-like intensity. Gus, the only character explored in any depth whatsoever, is pretty much unlikeable, despite a heartbreaking backstory and her fluctuating relationship with her father, which does provide some flashes of brilliance that both engaging and moving.

The other characters are two-dimensional and irritating, but we learn a lot about what Gus thinks: Gus is sad. Gus is guilty. Gus hates capitalism. Gus distrusts religion. Gus is self-pitying, self-absorbed and has few – if any – redeeming qualities.

In fact, the self-indulgent attitudes of the two creatives is the crux of the problem – not only does their whining introspection halt any empathy from the reader, it also stops them from doing anything interesting. At least this makes the dramatic conclusion even more dramatic by comparison, but as to the other 200 pages? It’s like having to eat through a mountain of stale cake to find only a mouthful of buttercream.

If you want to read something because it’s literary and will make you look smart and well-read, this is perfect. If you want to read something you actually enjoy, that might speak to you on a level other than misery, I’d recommend something else.