Paint Your Wife
“He had seen one thing and thought the other. He’d made the mistake of seeing what he expected to see, what he was used to seeing”– this quotation from the back cover of Paint Your Wife prepares the reader for the unexpected. Lloyd Jones, an eloquent writer with a clean, pared-down style, has the 2001 Deutz Medal for Fiction and other international awards to his credit. His work is diverse and ambitious: The Book of Fame is a novel about the first New Zealand rugby tour of Britain, while Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance is a love story. In This House has Three Walls – a “novel as ‘tripych’” – characters pass with apparent ease from contemporary New Zealand into 19th century Russia or Paris. Reading Lloyd Jones, you do expect the unexpected.
His latest novel, though firmly rooted in New Zealand, offers some surprises. We first encounter his artist rummaging in the local tip. Alma Martin (male) sketches compulsively, encouraging others and recommending art as therapy. “He draws the way other people breathe,” writes Jones. He talks the talk, certainly – he has a lot to say about “seeing” and drawing, and refers often to his mentor Bonnard and his ever-bathing and oft-painted wife, Marthe.
Picking up this book, I was reminded how many novelists have chosen to describe the painting life rather than the writing life with which they are naturally more familiar, creating protagonists who wrestle with a cousin of their own particular angel. Maurice Gee’s Ellie and the Shadow Man and Barbara Anderson’s Portrait of the Artist’s Wife sprang to mind. Is this because painting seems more concrete and less cerebral (and perhaps less neurotic) than writing?
When the novel opens, the narrator, Harry Bryant, proprietor of Pre-loved Furnishings & Others Curios and mayor of New Egypt is flying home from London where he has been visiting his son. Harry is haunted by a brief encounter he had with a black woman in a London nightclub. Reflecting on the father/son relationship, he remembers how as teenagers he and friend Dougie tracked down his errant father, Frank Bryant, in Australia. The first chapter is full of back-story and people the reader expects to learn more about. It’s a big cast and there are many more to come in subsequent chapters. Harry’s life is like that. He’s the mayor of a small town and he knows just about everyone. Customers drift in and out of his second-hand shop, trading or browsing.
Harry has a wife, Frances, who creates jigsaw puzzles for a living, but she is a background figure. Jones doesn’t put words into her mouth until well into the book. Consequently she doesn’t have much reality for the reader. Does she have any reality for Harry?
New Egypt, once “the paint capital” of New Zealand until the factory closed, is a seedy, sad sort of place. How extraordinary that a cruise ship would stop there and that the mayor would take a small group on a bus tour which includes a visit to the abandoned paint factory. The locals have been marshalled to light bonfires on the beach to farewell the ship. There is a tragi-comic quirkiness to this episode, but it seems highly unlikely. As part of the town tidy-up Alma Martin has decorated the empty shop fronts with paintings based on the sketches of local women he did 40 years earlier. The former models come to look at the mural: “For these women in whom youth had already passed there was a pleasant and exhilarating feeling of resurrection.”
Jones takes the reader back to the war years when Alma completed 37 portraits of young women in his community and another 580 sketches of Alice, Harry Bryant’s mother. (The fact that our narrator wasn’t born till after the war makes for some odd authorial intrusions.) The women seemed to enjoy Alma’s attention, but the artist was no Casanova. It was only with Alice that the relationship developed in the direction of love. She wanted to pose nude for Alma “in order to help him flesh out his memory of his lost wife.” (Claire had died in the same train accident that affected Alma’s ability to remember her.) Alice and Alma swam naked, but did they become lovers?
Jones is good at creating sexual tension, and seems interested in whether the apparent intimacy of posing naked (or, as in his previous novel, tango dancing), translates into genuine intimacy and sexual feelings. Jones’s women, more susceptible than his men, are prepared to take the initiative. While readers experience events through Alice’s eyes, we aren’t allowed to forget that she is the narrator’s mother, which for this reviewer undermined the power of the narrative.
When Alice’s then-husband George returned from the war, marital relations resumed. Or did they? Alice and George talked for hours, holding hands, changed into night attire, got into bed and Alice turned off the light. And:
This isn’t an area to dwell on. For one thing George wouldn’t appreciate the world knowing what happened between him and my mother beneath the bedsheets. But I will say this – the earlier observation about memory and reality making for mismatched partners holds here – and I’ll leave it at that.
Excuse me? There’s a problem here and it isn’t necessarily an erectile one. Who’s telling this story? Harry Bryant or Lloyd Jones? If the author can be bothered telling us that George buttoned his pyjamas then surely he should tell us whether he made love to his wife. We must assume that he didn’t.
It’s no surprise then that things don’t go well for Alice and George. He starts behaving strangely – demolishing a hill, barrowful by barrowful, to improve the view and to regain Alice’s affection. This behaviour would surprise the reader were it not described in the back-cover synopsis. Along comes handsome Frank Bryant, and although Alice doesn’t like his dirty fingernails or his “limitations”, the chemistry is right. Next thing she’s expecting his baby – Harry, our narrator. But the marriage is short-lived and after a few years Frank runs off with “the woman from wages”.
We have come full circle, but the novel isn’t over. The “abandoned mother” mentioned in the synopsis is not yet abandoned. She tells her story to Harry and Alma while they sketch her. Yes, Harry has taken up drawing. Sadly, Alice now fades into the background.
Stuff keeps happening. Guy and Kath plan to move to Australia, but it doesn’t work out. (Guy and Kath who? Do we meet new characters on page 157?) Kath has sex with Dougie instead of going to the funeral of one of the two characters called Dean. It’s all getting a bit silly. Maybe life is like that, but it doesn’t make for a good story. This reader was finding it hard to care.
Sketching is therapy and a metaphor for understanding. When Harry starts sketching Frances he seems to recover his affection for her, but it’s a pale, tired sort of love. The old paint factory finds a new raison d’être, art succeeding where the theme park and the cruise ship failed. Is this a story we are supposed to take at face value? Even if it is a fable, we should be able to suspend our disbelief and accept the elements of the story.
In the final chapter the town’s women are running to raise money for art equipment, though it doesn’t sound much like a fun run: “All are red in the face. Their legs are covered with the same rash of exertion. For some it has got to be too much already. They look like they are drowning …” Their reward, according to Jones, is that they will be painted.
Much has been written about why men paint women, with or without clothes on. The notion that women are invariably validated by men painting them doesn’t have many supporters these days and is guaranteed to raise ire. It doesn’t even have traction within this novel. Alice didn’t find being drawn a satisfactory substitute for life or love:
Too often Alice was left with the empty feeling that he [Alma] was seeking only information. She might as well be the night sky with Alma’s eye fixed to the end of a telescope. Or else she was a bowl of fruit, interesting to look at in all its shape and configuration.
Readers who can accept the central conceit of Paint Your Wife may find it more satisfying than I did. I kept stumbling over improbabilities, unlikely dialogue and some odd sentences, such as “Doug and I were in no hurry to climb into out wetsuits, though as I remember, I didn’t have a wetsuit.” I couldn’t quite believe in New Egypt or its mayor. Harry Bryant as an individual had some cred, but as narrator he had blind spots. He had trouble telling his mother’s story and then insisted on telling everybody else’s.
Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer.