Posted in Personal Purchase

The Flames by Sophie Haydock

I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Despite recognising the featured portraits, I didn’t know much about Egon Schiele, other than he was a protégée of Klimt. I have only seen one of the paintings, Portrait of a Woman modelled for by his sister Gertrude Schiele because it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Schiele is described as a figurative painter and as an artist under the banner of the Vienna Secession he was pushing the boundaries, trying to create something completely new or ‘art nouveau’. This was the time of a rebirth in painting, writing and all other art forms towards a new way of describing the world – the birth of Modernism. The unusual shapes and colours in his work is reminiscent of writers like Virginia Woolf who were throwing out the rule book and wrote novels with unusual timelines, streams of consciousness and complex characters whose inner world was often more important than events outside it. Haydock’s book uses some of these devices and a way of ‘writing back’ to art history and challenging Schiele’s representation of these women. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Here we get to hear the women’s stories as they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele.

We start with Adèle, one of a pair of sisters living opposite Schiele in an upmarket district of Vienna. Adele is transfixed on Schiele as soon as he arrives on moving day and is glued to the window seat every day in the hope of catching his eye. However, both Adèle and her sister Edith are from a very well respected family and there isn’t a chance that their father would accept Schiele as a choice for his daughter. Adèle is persistent though and soon the sisters meet Schiele on the street outside, alongside the woman they see coming and going from the flat, Wally. Although there is a part of her who knows the relationship between Wally and Schiele must be a complex one, she tucks it to the back of her mind, and begins to feel she might be making headway with him. Surely Wally is a maid, someone who cleans and models for him? Using Edith as her foil they do have a cinema outing, a very awkward foursome, and Adèle is so glad to have a sister that’s quiet, in the background, and goes unnoticed. She’s the perfect chaperone for this relationship she’s building in her head. She’s in love with Schiele and he must be in love with her, in fact she never has a moment’s doubt. Haydock writes a brilliant opening section here, with a perspective that we’re never fully sure of and a course of action that could be leading to disaster. It’s almost painful to be inside the mind of this highly strung young woman, whose class and status keeps her in a constant waiting position. There’s so much she’s dreamed of doing, but can only do them when she is a married woman. Women of Edith and Adèle’s class can’t make decisions for themselves, don’t get up and go travelling, or go to university or even go to the theatre alone. There are times, imprisoned behind her window when she envies Wally’s freedom to come and go as she pleases. Adèle is bored and I feared some of her reality was little more than the daydreams of an under stimulated mind. There’s a sense that an emotional storm is brewing.

The second section of the book is focused on Gertrude Schiele, Egon’s younger sister who started posing for his sketches when they still lived at home. Through Gertrude we experience Schiele’s early years, with her perspective as the filter. Born to a man who worked on the government railways, the family were respected, although the shadow of mental health does fall here too. We see the germination of an unusual relationship between brother and sister, with hints of impropriety on both sides where her modelling for him is concerned. It’s clear to see Schiele’s incredible artistic drive, thriving in limited circumstances and with a father who wishes his son wanted to follow him into a respectable job on the railways. Art is no way to make money, but there is a sense it’s more than that driving his father, possibly the praise that would come his way for having such a loyal son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, when his father’s behaviour becomes erratic what will happen to them all? As for Gertrude we see a strange dynamic when Schiele uses other models or is in a relationship? There is jealousy there which is interesting to watch as we move through the next few years. In the third section we meet Wally, artist’s model for some of Schiele’s best work and a partner to him in every way. I loved this section, because I found Wally inspiring in her choice to live in the way she wants despite the consequences. Wally is probably his most professional model, with an energy and intensity that leaps off the canvas. She openly lives with Schiele, travelling with him to a couple of country houses before settling in Vienna near her family. Wally knows where the line is and in the years she is with Schiele his behaviour gets them noticed in all the wrong ways, including with the authorities who label him a pornographer. She does not leave his side. There’s a core of steel in this woman, who will not hear him talk of love – possibly because she knows what verbal declarations are worth – and will never ask him to stay. However, I wanted him to stay with this woman, who I felt understood what he needed better than anyone, but didn’t ask for the usual protections her gender would be afforded, like marriage. I wondered whether, as she watched Wally from the window of her gilded cage, Adèle truly understood the responsibilities and the cost of being as ‘free’ as Wally seems?

Finally we come full circle, back to Schiele’s arrival in Venice and moving in opposite Adèle and her sister, but this time from Edith’s perspective. It was fascinating to see the same events play out through a different pair of eyes and we soon realise that despite her quiet demeanour and acquiescence to the rules her parents lay down, Edith is not as passive as she has appeared up to now. In fact she has the determination and deceptive skills her sister does, but the difference is that it’s not expected of Edith. As a result she has more freedoms than her sister and doesn’t get caught. She too is mesmerised by Schiele, but by the man rather than what he represents. Adèle wants freedom, to challenge boundaries, to scandalise society. Whereas Edith just wants the man, but does she truly know him and will she risk losing her sister to get him? We do get a sense of Schiele through these women, particularly Gertie because she’s there for the formative years. I often found him infuriating, because I felt he wanted to be a modern man, unrestricted by society’s rules and expectations on one hand, but then showed a total disregard for the women who were willing to break rules with him. There was a slight Madonna/Whore complex at work here, where women were compartmentalised into those to have fun with and those acceptable for marriage. Some of his choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something picked up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in two sessions, but I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.

Meet The Author

Sophie Haydock is an award-winning author living in east London. Her debut novel, The Flames, is about the four muses who posed for the artist Egon Schiele in Vienna more than 100 years ago. She is the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers.Sophie trained as a journalist at City University, London, and has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler and BBC Three, as well as freelancing for publications including the Financial Times, Guardian Weekend magazine, Arts Council, Royal Academy and Sotheby’s. She has interviewed leading authors, including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernardine Evaristo, Sally Rooney and Amy Tan. Passionate about short stories, Sophie also works as a digital editor for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory literary organisation. She judges writing competitions and hosts her own short story club.Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen – dedicated to the women who posed for Egon Schiele – has a community of over 100,000 followers. For more information, visit: sophie-haydock.com

Published 17th March 2022 by Doubleday

Posted in Netgalley

The Birdcage by Eve Chase

Eve Chase’s new novel had all the ingredients of a perfect read for me – quirky bohemian family, unconventional artistic father, large Cornish house and family secrets that have haunted his daughters for years. It’s the psychological impact of these family secrets that really make the novel. The story is told in a dual timeline, in the present Lauren, Kat and Flora are returning to Rock Point, her father’s mansion house on the Cornish Coast. He has invited them after many years away from the house, following a terrible incident that occurred on the day of the eclipse in August 1999. The events of this day are told in our second timeline. Lauren is the youngest by a few years, and on that day she was an adolescent , while her half-sisters Flora and Kat are older teenagers. Each girl has a different mother and their overlapping ages show the sexual profligacy of their father Charlie, a well-known artist. As he sits down with his three adult daughters, Charlie has a big announcement for them. The girls are expecting an illness or plans concerning his artwork, but they have a shock in store.

The complexity of this family’s relationships is at the core of this novel and I really enjoyed going back in time to work out why and how each woman’s personality was formed. On the surface Flora is the most conventional sister, with a husband and young son Raff, but is everything at home as happy as it seems on the surface? Kat is the most career minded sister having developed a well-being app. She is constantly checking her phone and looking for a reliable signal so she can work, but is she just busy or is the world of well-being more stressful than it should be? Lauren has had the most recent difficulties in life, nursing her mother Dixie who was terminally ill. After moving into a local hospice Dixie died, and although Flora invited her for Christmas Lauren didn’t come. These women are anxious to be together again. Flora and Kat used to tease Lauren, even bully her a little bit. The reasons for this become clearer, but Lauren has always thought it was about Dixie. Dixie was different to me 6 hCharles’s usual choice in women, she was unadorned apart from piercings, kept her hair shorter and was artistic in her own right. Indeed Charlie is touchingly affected by her death and seems to regard this separation as something he most regrets in life. Each sister’s personality fits perfectly with their back story: Flora’s hesitancy and submissive nature; Kat’s avoidance and distraction, creating workaholic tendencies; Lauren’s phobias, which are usually under control, but thanks to Bertha the parrot and the wealth of seabirds surrounding their home it can be a problem. The parrot has other tricks as well, mimicking the house’s occupants with phrases that only one person knows are true or false.

I thought the pace was clever, becoming more urgent in the past and present day at once propelling the reader towards the eclipse event and the effect of it’s revelations in the present. What was particularly clever was the way some people are only revealed in all their complexity, in the present. Angie, who worked as their au pair, was disliked by Lauren when she was a child. Lauren sensed her duplicitous nature and knew she wasn’t really there for them, describing her as hungry to get to Charlie like an art groupie. However, as an adult Lauren can see that this was more complicated and how she didn’t understand adult relationships. There’s a shift in years and awareness, where Lauren and her sisters can now see that Charlie wasn’t just a man beleaguered by women throwing themselves at him. He is an active participant in these complicated affairs and in bringing these girls into the world. He’s even passive at their visits, always pleased to see them but never negotiating with exes, or organising the logistics. Their gran does all the work, leaving Charlie free to paint in his studio, a place where only his models and Lauren are welcome. He’s never taken responsibility for his actions and as events unfold it’s possible that those actions have created a perfect storm of sibling jealousy and conflict.

That eclipse summer, Charlie has asked his three daughters to sit for a painting with the large ornamental birdcage. It’s the painting that will become his most well known and most valuable, in fact the girls are sorry it’s gone to art collector because as far as they know it’s his most personal. There’s a wealth of imagery in this painting, starting with the three sister’s pose, sitting together but not touching, like three separate islands. There’s the solemnity behind it too, the girls are not talking or cracking a joke and all three are staring out towards the viewer. Or is it towards the painter? In feminist readings of visual arts the bird within a cage represents the imprisonment of women, but also the gilded frame through which we view femininity. We can’t know the painter’s intention, but by painting it next to his daughters is he acknowledging their freedom? Or could he be pointing out a sexual double standard? He has been free to create these overlapping lives without censure, whereas their mothers and the girls have borne the gossip, shaming, poverty and hardship that comes with being a single parent. They’ve had to hear the whispers and insults about their morals, while he has been free to carry on with only the reputation of being bohemian to his name. Or could the birdcage contain his secret? The consequences of this secret we see on eclipse day, although it isn’t fully revealed until the present when it puts Lauren and her nephew Raff in danger. Only then will Charlie have to deal with how his behaviour has affected others, like ripples on a pond. This was an engaging tale of complex family ties and the psychological effect of a parent’s action. It has all the bohemian glamour of a country house occupied by an artist and a gorgeous atmospheric setting in beautiful Cornwall. I was gripped to the final page, having felt an affinity with Lauren and Flora I wanted to know how their stories turned out and the epilogue brings a satisfying ending to this family saga.

Published by Penguin on 28th April 2022

Eve Chase is an author who writes rich suspenseful novels about families – dysfunctional, passionate – and the sort of explosive secrets that can rip them apart. She write stories that she’d love to read. Mysteries. Page-turners. Worlds you can lose yourself in. Reading time is so precious: I try to make my books worthy of that sweet spot – she says on her Amazon.com author page.

Her office is a garden studio/shed with roses outside. She lives in Oxford with her three children, husband, and a ridiculously hairy golden retriever, Harry. She invites readers to say hello. ‘Wave! Tweet me! I love hearing from readers’.

Eve is on Twitter and Instagram @EvePollyChase and on Facebook, eve.chase.author.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Cut Out by Michèle Roberts.

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.