Warm teacups

THE UNDERPAINTER by Jane Urquhart, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99

If writing a novel is always a struggle to find words, writing a novel about a painter is a project requiring courage. We live in a time when works of art may be surrounded by pages of theoretical text, when it's argued that thought cannot pre-date language and that even the simplest representational painting can't be judged without recourse to verbal concepts or ideologies. Yet many of us hang on to what we're told is the childish belief that paintings talk in their own language which is not the same as words. So to write fiction from inside a painter's mind, if you're not a painter yourself, might be extremely difficult, not to say risky. It's not a matter, necessarily, of inventing a language that sounds realistic. It's got to be convincing, that's all.

Urquhart's narrator, Austin Fraser, certainly does not sound like any painter I've ever met. He tends towards the verbose, the academic, the pompous. He's decided to unwrap for us all the reasons why he paints in the way he does, and he likes staying in control, being one jump ahead, much cleverer than us. He's a minimalist, repressed and obsessed, who covers up his unconscious just as he does the surfaces and subjects of his paintings, whiting things out so that you can hardly decipher what's going on.

But, boy, does he like telling us. Like an anxious guide dragging you round a museum to look at all the chefs d'oeuvres one by one, he keeps letting us know he knows what's wrong with him: "I was unable to participate, to enter the fray of experience. I was a tourist then. I sense that I have remained a tourist ... My teacher, Robert Henri, had no way of knowing that neither community nor affection played a significant role in my life. His words merely gave me permission to remain aloof. This lofty promoter of American art with the affected French last name had sanctioned the voyeurism that had become, already, such a vital part of my personality."

So that's all right, then. Unlike a good painting, which takes its time to enter you and move you, which repays silent attending, Austin's narrative spells everything out. And since he's so frank about his coldness and egotism, it's hard to care enough about what happens to him.

This is a book written by a poet, and it shows in the careful structuring of the plot, such as it is, through metaphors of snow, ice, lakes, shorelines, northern light. In this vast Canadian landscape we track Austin's childhood and his mother's death from cold (aha) after sheltering from a snowstorm in a chilly mausoleum (aha) in the local cemetery. Small wonder, then, as Austin tells us so often, that since he's unable to cope with his grief, he can't love women properly either and prefers to cover his images in layers of whiteness.

In stark contrast to this dysfunctional blokeishness is Sara, his model and lover. It's hard not to suspect feminine wishful thinking on the author's part here: Sara is strong, beautiful, independent, caring and sensitive, kind to animals. Austin also has a friend, George, whom he despises as a mere china-painter; yet George, we're constantly reminded, is a thoroughly decent craftsman and human being. At least his teacups, he sentimentally declares, can contain warmth.

Counterpointed to the tale of Austin's growing obsession with china collecting is a series of vignettes of the Great War. Themes of loss and reparation are stated rather than demonstrated. The novel only really works if you read it as a poem, discarding conventional expectations of character and enjoying instead the chiming linked metaphors of white canvases and white landscapes. It's as though Urquhart is writing about a painter not so much to give us the portrait of an artist as to allow herself to paint with words.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?