“Break(s) all the rules of successful storytelling” – Nightshade by Annalena McAfee

Others may disagree, but for me Annalena McAfee’s novels are a matter of personal taste. The same applies to satires, in general. In her début novel, The Spoiler (2011), McAfee, a former journalist and the founder of the Guardian Review which she edited for six years, wrote about what she knew – and why not. Fast-paced and seeping with irony it tells of some the crazy characters often found in the newspaper industry, back in the 1990s, the era in which the novel is set. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it bears echoes of two of the best-known satirical novels set in this environment, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938) and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning (1967).

In Hame (2017), McAfee’s second novel, set largely on the fictional Scottish island of Fascara, Mhairi McPhail tries to rebuild her life after the break-up of a relationship by writing a biography of the island’s late Bard, Grigor McWatt. Full of mock Scottish dialect and clichéd humour, mixed with an over-anxious demonstration of just how much research McAfee put into her work, I have to admit that I rather struggled to get through it.

It was the promotional blurb of the author’s latest novel which made me put aside my previous reservations about her writing. In Nightshade McAfee shows, for the first time, her serious side. The attraction for me was the depiction of an artist’s life. Rather self-centred, Eve Laing is not a likeable character, yet she evokes a certain sympathy in the reader, as we learn of the bumpy road on which life has taken her. It is the second decade of the twenty-first century and Eve, now sixty years old, has reached crisis point and sees her life unravelling before her. Feeling that she has sacrificed her career for her family, she resents the global success of her old college roommate, Wanda Wilson, a celebrity on the conceptual art scene. Although she has found renown in her own right as a botanical artist, with one work in particular, a floral depiction of Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground, she feels under pressure (both of her own making and that of her agent) to create another significant work that will confirm her status in the art world.

Set during one night in London, as she makes her way from her old home to her studio, Eve looks back on the period when she was finding her groove as a young artist during the 1960s and 70s to the place she is at when we meet her. She muses:

“It look a lifetime to build and a second to wreck. Family life. That was the first to go. Then dignity, and with that, reputation. All the rest followed into the vortex. Only the work remains. The boy caught her glance and held it. Freeze-frame, then rewind. If she could, she would spool all the way back to the beginning, more than three decades ago – before the boy was even born – to her own thirties and the start of the family life she has so resolutely destroyed.”

Naming the streets she walks along, Eve thinks about the buildings and other significant landmarks she passes. How, for example, St. Giles Junction has been transformed from the squalor of the Victorian Era into a desirable corner of London in which bohemian artists have made their home. Eve describes the journey she takes on tube trains from one end of the city to the other, sharing her thoughts about her fellow passengers:-

“Two labourers wearily get to their feet and leave. Their seats are taken by a middle-aged couple. Man and woman, middle-class. They’re probably tourists. Both wear the parodic British costume of beige raincoats (Burberry knock-offs), deerstalkers and tartan scarves, and they are carrying Madame Tussauds jute bags. What self-respecting Londoner goes to Madame Tussauds?”

When they stop in a tunnel for disquietingly long minutes at a time, she recalls train disasters of the past, such as the Moorgate Station crash in February 1975 when a train failed to stop, killing 43 people and injuring 74 others:-

“Eve looks around the carriage. In this cross section of modern metropolitan diversity only the super-rich are missing. Everyone is nervously affecting nonchalance in the stillness of the train, while hankering for the safety of the streets above. In such moments of silent urban anxiety, forty metres of compacted chalk and London clay weigh heavily on the Tube traveller.”

Eve’s observations, on her nocturnal wanderings, are interspersed by flashbacks of her life’s story. She muses on the complicated relationships she had with other artists as a young woman, the jealousies and insecurities they invoked, the dislike she feels for her daughter, Nancy, and the recent separation from her daughter’s father, Kristof. Here she recalls a recent argument with her daughter:-

“Nancy, with her unfortunate recessive chin, looked like Botticelli’s Venus. That was another row that took two weeks to get over. After it, Eve began to hold back; it was a waste of breath, this engagement with her daughter. Why speak truth to weakness? Another meltdown would only result in Nancy demanding more sessions with her therapist, and who would pay for that?”

A central feature of the novel is what takes place in Eve’s studio and the bickering and petty jealousies of her young assistants. One of these is Luka Marlow, thirty years Eve’s junior. Quiet and  dedicated, Eve feels inspired by his presence, retaining him when the others leave.

“Luka, the quiet boy in the shadows, crept up on Eve. His silence began to intrigue her. He had the face of a young poet – the heroic jaw and tousled hair of Rupert Brooke, the haunted eyes of Rimbaud. He looked sensitive and damaged, running for cover from a world of extroverts, and she felt a curious kinship with him.”

With Luka at her side Eve begins to feels a new artistic vigour for the installation she is working on. She remembers one particular day:-

“She completed the drawing and watercolour of two specimens Arum maculaum at different stages of their life cycle: the spring form with purple spadix framed by a green hood and the summer clusters of orange berries on a pale poker stem. Now Luka was at the dissection tray twirling a spring specimen between his fingers, preparing to photograph it.”

The start of their relationship is the end of Eve’s marriage. As Luka takes on all the duties of the other assistants, there is a whispering suspicion that, as he makes himself indispensable to her in both sexual and artistic terms, Luka is plotting to take over control of Eve’s studio and her creative processes. The end, when it eventually comes, is as inevitable as it is shocking.

Luka’s character bears a strong resemblance to the young potter, Philip Warren, in A.S. Byatt’s novel, The Children’s Book (2009). Whether or not that is mere coincidence we have no way of knowing. Annalena McAfee’s writing style appears to break all the rules of successful storytelling. Eve ‘tells’ her story in flashback narrative form, with very little ‘showing’. In only a handful of instances is there any direct face-to-face dialogue. If her experiences weren’t so intriguing, making the reader want to know more about what makes Eve tick, McAfee’s way of writing would make Nightshade a rather dull read. As it is, the story alone, manages to win the reader over – just.

Any Cop?:  The fictional life of a bohemian artist. Worth reading, if only for the concluding chapter.


Carola Huttmann

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