Inking life's questions

Robin Black’s debut novel Life Drawing’s true feat is to universalise individual histories, portray uniqueness of a human being, the tragedies that pin us down, the exhilarations that lift us up, our susceptibilities to sin, our need for social contact placed alongside our need for solitude.

It’s a fine exploration of love and relationship, particularly when boundaries overlap. When tragedies strike us, we ritualise our living, because lives have to be lived. And the novel throws open a question: is not life a ritual of having sex, remembering the dead, attending to the sick, telling a lie, harbouring a secret all the way despite its ultimate sterility? Isn’t memorialising a crass ritual in the penumbral region of a forgetful or mangled past? Why trouble with finding a meaning when there is none?

Black also tells us the importance of circumstances and chance that shape our lives, a slight alteration of which might have made them different. She finds a connect between the dead and the living. Her novel explores the filial and matrimonial bonds and the tenuous threads that link them. Incidents and accidents morph into the lives of protagonists as lightly as predestination casts a shadow on free will (“for all the little things over which we have some control, for the most part we have none”).

Owen draws pictures with words while Augusta Edelman (known as Gus) draws words with pictures. And it is in the telling of the story of their picture-perfect world that tumbles down, that we are reminded once again that there is nothing like an everlasting party.

But Black’s canvases, like her protagonist Gus’s, are rather “unpopulated and unapologetically beautiful, a salve for the uglier realities of human life”. Why so? “Daily life was a pale grey thing, it seemed, and to expect otherwise was to be a fool — at best.”

On the surface, Black gives her novel a deceptively simple storyline, but being able to unpeel “layers and layers and layers of selves.” Gus is a 47-year-old painter and her long-time partner Owen, a writer, choose to live in a secluded farmhouse away from Philadelphia. But Gus is haunted by demons of her past — her extramarital affair with Bill, the father of one of her art students, Laine.

Their life is interminably altered when Alison Hemmings moves into a nearby rental as their neighbour and her early-20s daughter, Nora, arrives for a visit and takes fancy to Owen. The cycle of betrayal comes a full circle with the violent death of Owen.

But not before Gus’s world had been irreparably shaken off her moorings, the real world had gnawed on the world of art. Not before she could come to terms with looming questions on sexual jealousy, youth and old age, the vicissitudes of mortality and the creative process itself that forces us to assign a meaning to an apparently meaningless life (“The mess and contradiction of what every human being is.”)

The novel casts cosmic questions about the purpose of life. Alison considers her as one of those “better at living other people’s lives”. And Owen reflects how sometimes “life demands things of you, that just the fact of being alive means allowing for possibilities that may be far from what you’d planned or even hoped.” Some live a borrowed life and some choose to live the real one like Owen’s father Wolf, who chose the life of an adventurer fired by hungers unknown to Gus, settling instead for the placid and the sterile.


What makes Black’s novel an evolved one is her languid evocativeness. Gus’s relationship with Owen, her confessional monologues, her chumminess with Alison, her relationship with Bill and Laine, Nora’s relationship with Owen as well as with her tempestuous father are stuff of the finer moments of literature.

Isn’t the world of memory quite apart from the world of reality? “In memory, each silken leaf of salad shines with a different green, new shades invented just for us; and the bread is symphonic in its textures, revelatory in its taste.” Gus is aware that “the dead are dead,” but her art is governed by the need “to integrate the dead into life”.

But what chance does the dead — Gus’s mother died in her childhood and then her sister Charlotte, recently with Gus reconstructing the dead soldiers of World War I in her paintings, before finally being confronted with the death of Owen — and the demented — Gus’s father caught in a memory warp — have if the embers of memory are not kept alive? “I owe the dead my memory,” wrote Elie Wiesel: “I am duty-bound to serve as their emissary, transmitting the history of their disappearance, even if it disturbs, even if it brings pain. Not to do so would be to betray them, and thus myself. I simply look at them. I see them and I write.”

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