Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Nigel Humphreys reviews 'Serpentine'

I'm absolutely delighted to present poet Nigel Humphreys' review of Serpentine. The thing about Nigel is he knows about writing, and he knows about art - so who better to cast his eye over this novel. I first met Nigel a few years ago, when the famous 'crack' was snaking across the floor of Tate Modern. We decided to take a look and were inspired - or I certainly was. A fictionalised version of this visit features in the first chapter of Serpentine. Recently I had the pleasure of going round the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy with Nigel. Perhaps the seeds of a new novel have just been sewn.

Here's Nigel's review.

Much paint is squeezed from tubes in Catherine Edmunds’ latest novel Serpentine, the outline is sure, its canvas painted with a sable brush, characters blocked in and the non-representational landscape of conflicting emotions hung. Victoria, a struggling artist, is passionate about her art, passionate about her men and between them there writhes a serpentine crack, partly symbolised by Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, a conceptual installation at Tate Modern in 2007. 

“‘Remember ‘Shibboleth?’ Victoria asks. ‘You have wounds, they fester, they never heal.’ The crack that ran through the heart of the building. It had been filled in . . . but the scar was still there.” 

Victoria carries the ghost of her Spanish affair with José as she tries to sculpt a relationship with antiques dealer Simon, a stranger who spilt coffee over her on a train. Yet not a stranger exactly since, it turns out, he’s known to John who is being divorced by Emma who lives in the north-east and a close friend of Victoria’s since art school. The narrative’s measured flow surprisingly allows us to swallow this coincidence without murmur as the action commutes between London and the North-east.

Victoria paints compulsively but her tragedy, if tragedy it is, is that her men don’t get her art, and therefore don’t get her. For Simon, Victoria’s abstract canvases are beyond his pedantry. Victoria paints her way through the novel in a to-and-fro of self-absorption – sometimes submissive, sometimes dominant, always impulsive. Her vitriolic relationship with a slightly unhinged Emma doesn’t help, but the women have all the fun. Unlike the bi-sexual José, Simon and John struggle for our interest at first and seem almost interchangeable. Are antiques dealers really that dull? Victoria’s initial prejudices against the profession soon change, and together with her we start to view the ‘sea of grey men’ as something very much more dynamic – dangerous even, when it comes to John.

At times the novel sets itself up as an apologist for Abstract art whereas Conceptual art in the novel is loud and symbolic. As well as Shibboleth, Miroslaw Balka’s How it is, also having its fifteen minutes of fame in the Tate’s Turbine Hall in 2010, suggests the necessity of groping in the dark inherent in Victoria’s perception of self, especially when it comes to her unco-ordinates of men.

The novel is a comfortable read, its narrative mixes prime colours of human relationships while commenting on the art world in broad strokes. Those who don’t paint get a telling glimpse of how the struggling painter makes ends meet by turning out postcard landscapes of city landmarks for a pittance. Life classes in back street studios, antiques fairs and a concert at Wigmore Hall, written so that we hear the music, create a convincing canvas for the craquelure of self-doubt which is the protagonist Victoria. Enjoyable.

Serpentine can be purchased from all the usual online stores, as well as the publisher's website here and direct from the author.

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