Portrait of The Artist’s Wife
Victoria University Press, Wellington
Sarah Tandy is the artist’s wife. Her husband, Jack Macalister, is an aspiring, finally famous novelist, but if he shines most brightly in the public spotlight, she too has her artistic ambitions, as a painter. But in New Zealand of the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), a woman who is also a wife, mother and daughter learns to fit the painting around life’s daily routines and random crises. The struggle to nurture her talent, to keep her ‘painting self’ intact, is as strong in Sarah as the need to write is in Jack, but where he is effectively allowed to be self-obsessed, Sarah is not – and her experience is the richer because of it.
Barbara Anderson’s delightful new novel, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, takes in some forty years of Sarah’s life, from her childhood in rural Hawke’s Bay, through teenage marriage and the birth of a daughter soon after, through years of juggling domestic and family responsibilities with the ever-present imperative to paint, overseas travel, the birth of a second daughter twenty years after the first; a comfortable, compromised but apparently fulfilling late middle age; then, suddenly, Jack’s death at the age of 52. Its straightforward narrative structure, so different from that of the author’s previous novel, Girls’ High, suggests a more conventional, sober work, and one which admits less of the comic bravura characteristic of her earlier writing. It is, in fact, just as funny, but it is also richer in emotional depth, and more expansive in its concerns.
Barbara Anderson’s gift for the telling vignette, a surprising phrase, is as much in evidence as ever – a newborn baby ‘as unexpected as a buttercup on a moon crater’, an adult, catnapping, and awaking ‘restored and pink-cheeked as Churchill’ – as is her sharp, irreverent eye for absurdity. Dinner at a smart Wellington restaurant, for example, and the waiter, all white gloves and obsequiousness, declares his intention to run through the menu for the main course. ‘”Why?” asked Charles’.
Much of the sheer pleasure of Portrait of the Artist’s Wife is in moments of recognition such as this (the more purely farcical incidents – Jack caught. literally, with his pants down, on several occasions – are less successful), and this applies as well to the novel’s sadder, even tragic moments. These are beautifully portrayed. The deaths of Sarah’s early teacher and mentor, Otto Becker, and his wife, Olga, are genuinely moving; so too is the evocation of the family’s helpless grief when Sarah’s mother is killed in a car crash. Powerful or significant moments, simply sketched, are Barbara Anderson’s real strength.
Strangely less satisfying is the portrayal of Sarah and Jack’s relationship – along with ‘art’ the constant presence, and emotional centre, of the novel. We are occasionally told what it is that holds them together, through the inauspicious beginnings of their marriage, through to Jack’s frequent infidelities and bouts of drinking, through Sarah’s own ambivalence, especially when her old friend Charles Bremner is around: ‘Jack understood Sarah’s need to work. It was one thing which united them, grew stronger through the years … the matrix which strengthened and lay beneath the pitted and cock-eyed structure of their marriage … They shared the tunnel-vision selfishness of those who knew that what they’re doing must be done’. When so much else in Portrait comes alive in quick and vivid flashes, the character of this marriage remains frustratingly elusive, for all the author’s pointers – it is as if the behaviour of the characters themselves, and what Barbara Anderson wants us to believe about them, are at odds. Sarah, precisely, is not selfish: her other life ‑ of children, wider family networks, friendships ‑ simply does not allow for it, as Jack’s does. She is, eventually, highly regarded as an artist, but just as her painting cannot itself come alive on the page, neither does the relationship that apparently sustains it.
Portrait of the Artist’s Wife is a fine novel, immensely readable and full of warmth and subtle insight. But its best moments lie not in the evocation of artistic endeavour but in the surprisingly rich and rewarding world that threatens constantly to undermine it.
Jane Parkin is a freelance editor who lives in Wellington.