Sunday, July 20, 2014
Think of a partnership of many years—the slow or sudden love, the deep and necessary trust, the private needs that are not spoken, the small infractions that are, perhaps, lies and isn't any lie a betrayal, and doesn't every betrayal hover afterward, shift the scene and change the light? Doesn't every betrayal threaten a cascade of betrayals? Where will they come from? Will we be ready?
Think of friendship—the tricky, sticky slopes, the little envies, the perfect hours, the grave misjudgments, the accusations, the cowering aftermaths, the ones left wounded on the path. Think of how easy friendship seems, and how utterly fraught, and how nearly impossible to heal when it shatters.
Think of the spooling away of memories—of a mind lost to a disease, of a man and his memories remade, of conversations that have little footing in reality, even though, of course, they are reality, they are what is happening right then. The Alzheimer's father talks. The daughter listens. Nothing is irrefutable, except for how it feels in present time.
In her penetrating and perfectly calibrated first novel, Life Drawing, Robin Black plumbs the depths of art, love, friendship, and memory and surfaces with a book of transcendent clarity. Life Drawing is a book about consequences—the consequences of an affair, the consequences of instinctive but perhaps not well-placed trust, the consequences of honesty, and anger.
Gus, the artist, and Owen, her writer husband, have retreated to a quiet country home in a land of spectral greens; the pond before them is perfectly round. The two are at work on their respective canvases. They abide by conversational rules laid down to protect each other from the things that must not be said or discussed in the aftermath of the affair Gus had several years before. They are interrupted by a neighbor who has escaped a violent husband and whose daughter, Nina, will show up before too long. Gus has a father with Alzheimer's, whom she frequently visits. She has a student, a young woman, with whom she has formed a meaningful connection.
The book is taut, smart, a closed and inexorable world, a stunning page turner. We know from the outset that Owen is dead, and so we want to know why Owen is dead, but even more compelling, at least to this reader, are the questions: Does anyone survive the wounds they have inflicted? Is love bigger than the past?
We turn the pages because we trust Black to know. Because we believe that she has something to say—inside the novel but also outside of it—about how we live our lives. Black is an intensely intelligent writer—nothing superfluous here, every thread that rises needled back down to the open-weave cloth, every color in the tapestry checked for what it tells us about lived entanglements. Her book, deeply emotional and resonantly rendered, is, remarkably, complete. No stone unturned.
We who write, we who create, we who live—we know how elusive, how difficult, how nearly unattainable completion is. A completed conversation. A completed work of art. A completed story, told.
Life Drawing is complete.
I loved it as much as I loved Black's collection of short stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, which I read while I was in Berlin several years ago and reviewed here.