I was first drawn to Robin Black’s writing in her brilliant Twenty-One Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Writing posted on Beyond The Margins: “Make your skin as thick as you are able to, for your career. Keep it as thin as you can tolerate, for your art.” When I had the chance to review her first novel, Life Drawing, I leapt at it.
I wasn’t disappointed. Life Drawing is a gorgeously written book. Black’s prose reminds me of the David McCullough quote — ‘Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” The quality of writing here implies Robin Black has a clarity of thought worth all of us turning every shade of green over.
The novel opens with death. We know from the first sentence that Owen will die, but his fate is quickly scuppered by a seamless narrative transition into the memories of main character Augusta.
After coming into an inheritance Augusta (Gus) and Owen leave their city lives behind. Running from the corrosive effects betrayal has had on their marriage, they use the move to rural paradise as a chance to start again. In a secluded setting free of painful memories Owen and Gus devote themselves to their art. He is a writer, and she is a painter. They create, drawing life together each in their own way, quietly, discovering the pleasures of country living while practicing the art of mending what they share between them. Black’s use of metaphor is wrought with beautiful timing and quiet resonance.
“When I first began gardening, uninformed, I was shocked by the impact water could have on a thirsty plant. Of course I knew that plants needed water, but I didn’t know the miraculous impact a good soaking could have. I would notice a perennial, often sage – we grew a lot of sage, for its colour and its hardiness – practically shrivelled from thirst and heat, and I would get out the hose and then half an hour later would see it rebid, its leaves unfurled, its very being seemed healed.”
For a time, things between Gus and Owen appear seemingly healed, until a new neighbour arrives bringing with her a cataclysmic chain of events that draw out old jealousies and submerged resentments to disastrous, explosive effect. The twists in the story that crept up on me were refreshing and welcome.
Life Drawing is a novel that unfurls in a seemingly effortless manner. The attention to detail is visceral. I read it in two sittings, which is a rarity for me. Every word earns its place on the page, and the result is a narrative as clear as clean glass. I looked through it, into the heart of this story. I was under Gus’s skin, seeing what she saw, feeling what she felt. Her personality, worlds apart from mine, nevertheless became my own. I felt her discomforts and awkwardness, her pains and guilt, her losses, her memories, and loves.
There are many story strands Robin Black has woven together to create this full-bodied and exquisite story, like one of Gus’s detailed, light-filled paintings. Her exposition is understated and perfect. The ending of the novel is horrible and stunning, just as life can be. But the writing is so finely tuned that I didn’t resent the pain. If anything, it was a relief to read something so messy and true so neatly written, with such control and beauty. There are a few instances throughout the novel when the whole story seems summed up in one elegant, faultless sentence.
“How do any of us walk across a room without tripping over our own multitudes?”
Any Cop?: This wondrous experience, of casually picking up a book and one hundred pages later wondering when you lost traction with reality, absorbed instead by a story inside your mind of someone else’s creation, is a spell. One Robin Black casts deftly.