The Artist’s widow
Author: Shena Mackay
Genre- Literary fiction, Vintage Classic
Like an expert painter, Mackay paints a portrait of the widow, Lyris, in bold strokes. The book opens in a London art gallery where a retrospective showing of artwork by her late husband, John Crane, is under way.
Readers are introduced to muted shades of hypocrisy, lies, deceit, and duplicity in the glitterati of the esteemed gathering. The shadows become more pronounced as the plot advances, as do the worry lines on the wrinkled forehead of the protagonist, Lyris.
The grieving elderly widow comes across a slew of characters, each representing a mishmash of raw human emotions and motivated by disguised agendas.
The promise of his own show, the couple’s London house, and their art collection lure Nathan Pursey, an ambitious, struggling, slip-shod artist related to the widow by marriage. He doesn’t flinch from taking his aunt on a merry goose chase and is unscrupulous enough to steal from her.
Zoe, a self-absorbed TV producer, struggling to get a foot in the industry, hustles into the widow’s life, house, and time to gratify personal motives. More surprising is that it is done under the garb of a philanthropic project to celebrate unsung women artists like Lyris.
An almost predatory extended family looks for an opportunity to pounce on the property and paw Lyris’s meager yet priceless possession. Not to mention mere acquaintances who wouldn’t shy from grabbing their share of flesh.
The subplots add colors to the backdrop and strengthen the bold lines of the widow’s personality. The book is quirky and displays Mackay’s excellent command over human emotions, vulnerability and drives. Adept at employing few words to paint the entire picture, Mackay uses them tactfully, making the lines say much more than perceptible at first reading. Only when one thinks about the story later does the ingenuity of Mackay’s words become apparent.
The book is a black comedy, and Mackay’s attempt to hold a mirror to the phony society. Yet it is also a story about an artist’s indomitable spirit, an elderly woman coming to terms with the detritus of her well-lived life and finding solace in the most unlikely places.
Though I am impressed with this satirical take, I wish the book ended on a better note. The death of Princess Diana as a denouement does not work as a focal point to tie the subplots together.
I’d recommend this book for its unique storytelling style that requires a great deal of participation from the readers to unscramble and unravel the unsaid.
Mackay’s understated, elegant sarcasm keeps the tone light. However, her reflection on unrecognized artists, glamorous agencies, scrooge-like studios, and folks exploiting their own families for easy gains is emphatic and scathing.