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The ice man painteth

Tuesday's book
`The Underpainter', Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

The 83-year-old narrator of Canadian writer Jane Urquhart's dreamy, mesmeric new novel is the artist Austin Fraser, who lives alone with his china collection in a bleak modernist house. The symbolism of its bare cavernous spaces echoes a life spent evading love, and a painterly fascination with ice-bound distances. News of the death of Sara, a woman he has not seen for 40 years, triggers an explosion of memory about summers spent painting in an abandoned silver-mining settlement on the north shore of Lake Superior.

The reclusive Sara, fiercely strong and intelligent, was the last inhabitant of this place, inheritor of a hard wilderness worthy of the Norse gods. Muse and model, Sara had been coldly abandoned after 15 years as a threat to Austin's emotional anaesthesia.

Another thread of memory follows his friend George, a gentle, amiable young man who runs his family's china shop in a Lake Ontario town. Returning shattered from the First World War, George forges a bond with an equally damaged nurse. Austin's unwitting and catastrophic intrusion upon this relationship, fragile as its china-shop background, is meticulously recalled.

Jane Urquhart writes convincingly in a male voice and handles symbolism well. Her narrator's detached eye never falters, though passion hums beneath the surface like some vast primeval beast beneath the ice. The mixing of paints becomes erotic, and the minute recall of detail is sensual.

Urquhart employs a stylistic device akin to Austin's own technique of underpainting. Works depicting scenes from his past in scrupulous detail are systematically obscured by layers of whitening glazes. Great pains are taken to ensure that these smothered images will not "rise to the surface ... like drowned corpses, bloated and obscene, regardless of glazes or the number of layers of zinc white, titanium white, and lead white I applied to the canvas".

Urquhart gives us some remarkably fine detail and much understated pathos, while rendering the whole picture ghostlike. Characters appear like wraiths from the fog, become dazzling specks on a snowblind eye, encounter dreams and apparitions, while the cold, painted-out hero is laid before us in his desperate vulnerability.

The most moving scene - the death from scarlet fever of the nine-year- old Austin's mother, comes early. Barred from her deathbed, he sees through the keyhole her hands groping among bedclothes "as if she were looking for something in the dark, something she would recognise by touch". He knows that she is looking for him.

Urquhart leads us on a stately, sometimes slow progress from this crucial scene to the old man confronting his own cruelty in the face of approaching death. It is a wholly believable and very moving experience.

Carol Birch