The Artist’s Widow by Shena Mackay


(Jonathan Cape £12.99)


Anyone who believes that artists should be witnesses and visionaries rather than taxidemists and rag-and-bone men will take heart from reading Shena Mackay’s new novel.  At the core of a multifaceted narrative lies a conflict between the painterly values of the past and the sensational (or indeed ‘Sensational’) ones of the present.

The conflict is personified by Lyris Crane  (the titular heroine) and Nathan,  her great-nephew by marriage.   They are first glimpsed at a smart Mayfair gallery where the trendy and trivial  are  gathered  for  a  retrospective  of  Lyris’s  late husband’s work.  Nathan gatecrashes the event, working the room like a burglar casing a joint.  Louis, the gallery-owner appears far more interested in Nathan than in Lyris, while no one is at all  interested in Lyris’s  South London neighbours,  a school dinner lady and the owner of a washing machine repair-shop.

Octogenarian Lyris,  a painter herself,  is courted as a Neglected Woman Artist by television producer Zoe, whose feminist credentials are exposed when she declares that ‘Gwen John was a miles better artist than her husband’.  Lyris’s artistic credo: ‘I paint according to my own vision and style but I feel myself very much as being part of a tradition’ is, one suspects, close to Mackay’s own.

Lyris’s  wry  declaration  that  ‘Everybody  hates  artists’ widows’ certainly won’t apply to readers of this novel.   They will, however, hate artists’ great-nephews.  It is hard to decide which is the more offensive:  Nathan’s smell (cannabis, mildew, Marlboroughs,  humous  and  stale  white  wine)  or  his  work (photocopies of his bottom and tubs of viscera).  He belongs to a loose-knit group of laddish artists, even more self-promotional and self-deluding than their Goldsmith’s predecessors.   Nathan may be a failure both as an artist and a human being (and, in Mackay’s world, the two are linked), but he understands that, in the media-driven world of the nineties,  an artist’s greatest asset is his publicist.

Mackay’s own canvas teems likes a Brueghel with ordinary people caught in funny and revealing poses,  unlike a novel such as Dunedin, the characters are connected less by an overarching theme than by a skein of circumstance and relationship.  At one point  in that earlier novel,  Jack,  a Presbyterian minister, studies his wife’s face for ‘a sign of irony and subversion’;  he finds none.  Had he turned his glance on his creator, however, the result would have been very different, and Mackay’s gifts for biting description and black comedy are both much in evidence here.

The novel offers a riposte to current youth-led culture. The young are selfish, superficial or parasitical (or all three if they are involved in one of the spin-off artistic professions such as book publicists or TV producers).  Their only hope of redemption rests in contact with someone older, as when Nathan’s ex-girlfriend, Jackee, a white woman so mixed-up that she tries to pass as mixed-race, moves in with Lyris.   Even Nathan is allowed a tiny glimmer of hope at the end.

As ever, Mackay’s prose is a joy to read.  Jokes abound (Who else would write of a painter’s suicide off Beachy Head that it ‘didn’ t make much of a splash’?).   And her endorsement of traditional artistic values is as timely as it is true.  While it must be admitted that the novel creates less of a unique and unified world than either Dunedin or The Orchard on Fire, even minor Mackay is a major treat.