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.

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