This is an interesting book, focused on the later years of Henri Matisse and those who cared for him. This was the period where Matisse was creating his famous ‘cut out’ works, works that are linked inextricably to the body that’s failing the artist and the structure of this novel. I visited Tate Modern for the Matisse exhibition a few years ago, and because I’ve studied disability theory and life writing I could see that these cut out pieces were a metaphor for a body that was failing, piece by piece. By taking a whole piece of paper, cutting out these shapes, and rearranging them to make a piece of art, I felt the artist was trying to communicate what it is like to have all the pieces, but no longer in the order that makes up a whole. When we become sick or disabled our body doesn’t work as a cohesive whole any more. The pieces are different, rearranged and not necessarily working together harmoniously anymore. In my writing therapy groups, often for people with disabilities, I encouraged journal work that experimented with structure. I wanted to encourage writing that was the embodiment of the writer’s illness or disability. The writing produced is often fragmentary, moving between long lyrical sentences and short, snappy statements. In my own work there are gaps where I don’t have the language to express how my multiple sclerosis feels or how my emotions process the change from day to day. Often fragmentary paragraphs don’t seem related at all – representing the nerve damage that occurs in this disease, preventing the signals that keep a body coherent and working in harmony with itself. As a group we talk to our illness, we give it a name and a body of its own, then chat to it and record what comes back.
I believe all of this is what Matisse was representing within a cut out piece and I’m sure that Michèle Roberts is doing something equally clever in the structure of this novel, that can seem a bit bewildering at first. Sentences are very free form, there are fragments from different unnamed characters, there is speech without punctuation and time differences that are not obvious straight away. Might this lack of structure alienate some readers? Quite possibly, but I don’t think Roberts is thinking about clarity, she’s making a work of art. The best thing to do is just go with it and let the writing flow over you, until the meaning becomes clearer. Sometimes, when we visit a gallery, we need time to engage with some pieces. We simply have to stop and look for a while with no expectations. In the same way, I did find myself having to go back and reread sections of this book, so it isn’t a quick read, and it won’t be for everyone.
In his final years, Matisse is living at the Hotel Regina in Nice, where he has a studio and is making his famous cut outs with the assistance of Lydia (Delectorskaya ). Eventually he cannot get out of bed and needs nursing care, for day to day living. One is named Monique and one voice of the novel is Clémence, a friend of another of his nurses. There’s also Clémence’s friend Camille, who is pregnant to another artist. In a later time we meet Denis, a man in his sixties who was adopted when he was a baby by friends of Clémence. Denis is attracted to a man called Maurice who he allows to sublet his flat while he’s away in Paris trying to uncover the secrets of his birth. All of these character’s stories come in ‘cut outs’ and the reader has to make sense of it. What we do get is an incredible sense of place, from Roberts’s long, lyrical and descriptive passages. We move from character’s memories, back in time to the actual events. The past explains the present day in parts, but not in others. While I didn’t feel I was fully engaged with the story, I did love the sensual descriptions of art and food, and my senses were fully engaged with these parts, The ending, when it came, was sudden and rather abrupt. It felt jarring after such a slow, meandering narrative. However it was a book that left me thinking and that’s never a bad thing.
Published by Sandstone Press 12th August 2021.
Meet The Author
Michèle Roberts is the author of fourteen critically acclaimed novels, including Daughters of the House, which won the WHSmith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and, most recently Ignorance, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013 and the Impac Award. Her memoir Paper Houses was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.