A matter of death and life
By Robin Black
Random House. 240 pp. $25
The name of the book is Life Drawing, but the story is about a death.
We know that from the start: Our narrator, Augusta - called Gus - is a middle-aged painter who had moved from her longtime home of Philadelphia out to the surrounding countryside, to find some solitude that she hopes would nurture her damaged marriage to Owen.
Gus opens the story by telling us that Owen is dead, just not how, or why. We have the rest of the novel to sort that out. And though this careful character study at times unfolds almost like a mystery novel, with clues dropped here and there and every character a kind of suspect in the entangled domestic drama of their lives, we forget. By the time Owen dies, we have forgotten that we knew he would die, because Black's thoughtful novel is actually so totally about life, in all its pain, confusion, and beauty.
Gus and Owen are the kind of couple that will look familiar to many urban readers of a certain set. For years, they lived a city life, and swore they'd never leave it for the suburbs. Areligious, they eschew holidays (including Thanksgiving) in favor of their own quirky rituals. They're both artists: Gus a painter known for her landscapes and her gift with depicting both light (dancing, glowing, even cold winter light) and meticulous detail. Owen is a writer with four novels to his credit. He is that talented and unfamous thing sometimes known as a "writer's writer," and happy to be one.
When their relationship is strong, both partners work happily in their separate farmhouse studios, an invisible "rope of energy" joining them. But several years ago, Gus was unfaithful, cheating with a man who she still isn't totally over, and it has severed their connection - or at least created a lot of static on the line. When we first meet them, Owen hasn't written a thing for months.
Their necessary, but fragile, seclusion is disrupted when a new person comes crashing in - a neighbor, of all things, a pretty British woman who plans to rent the shabby house on the adjoining property for the summer. Alison, with her beautiful silver curls, bright gaze, and troubled past.
Alison's presence there - because of the houses' proximity to each other and isolation from any others, it's like they're the only three people left on Earth - changes the dynamic between Gus and Owen and creates new ones, many of them, ever-shifting.
What a difference one person can make. Honestly, it's downright distressing to think about. And think about it Gus does, from every angle, worrying over the meaning behind each interaction, and plumbing her own feelings for deep wells of meaning. Black, whose previous book was a collection of stories (If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This) that were tuned in to the poetry and symbolism of everyday life, is a skilled storyteller who wants to get inside relationships intellectually, to think her way through them, as is her Gus. But Gus' work as a painter allows Black to touch also on the parts of life that are more primal, more of the body than of the mind.
It's interesting that Black, a writer, chose not to look at Owen's struggle with his writing and instead built this universe around a visual artist, whose victories and failures are different. We watch Gus try to sort out why she can paint the golden light on a windowpane like nobody's business, but can't seem to render a human figure with as much vitality. Her creative difficulties and discoveries both mirror her life and help her to live it.
There are times in reading Life Drawing that one wishes it had a little more, well, life to it, that Black's language had more sparkle than exposition. There's a way in which she can lay out a scene or a feeling beautifully, but without allowing much of her narrator's personality to come through, which, unfortunately, reminds the reader of Gus' trouble with making people come to life on the canvas. Maybe writers and painters aren't so very different.
She has many fine moments, though, when that gift for symbolism is lively and apparent. Gus visits an old friend who has been partially paralyzed by a stroke and calls her "Gush": "As though she had always known the slosh and overflow of me, however I had tried to seem contained." And the tension Black creates and carries through the length of the book is taut and humming, keeping us wanting more. Is this a writer with a thriller in her, a bona fide mystery story? Maybe. Or it might just be that she's sensitive to the surprise and menace of everyday life, like any good artist.
Katie Haegele is the author of "White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, and Finding Out What Was Missing."