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by Natasha Bell
Crown, March 2018
320 pages
ISBN: 1524761079

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Alexandra Southwood, a thirty-seven-year old mother of two daughters, living in York, is absolutely happy with her marriage and her life, as she is quick to inform us. Now that her children are both in school, she is thinking about doing a Ph.D. in art history, a study she abandoned years earlier when she fell in love with her husband Marc and dropped out of art school. Marc is an academic too, though his interests are more conventional than Alex's passion for performance art.

But suddenly, all that vanished. Or to be more precise, she vanishes - her bloody clothing left on a river bank, her bicycle abandoned. We know she is alive because she narrates the entire tale, but Marc, her children, and the police are left to assume the worst. She tells us that she is being kept "tied up and drugged...with no hope of salvation," by an unidentified male. But this is not to be an ordinary captive female scenario, since Natasha Bell rings a change on the unreliable narrator. The entire narrative unfolds in her voice and in this case, it means that she supplies vivid descriptions of events she could never have witnessed. We are told what her husband said, did, and felt, as we might if Natasha were an omniscient author, but she is just a character who maintains that she is a captive. This does take some getting used to.

She also reports on conversations a few of her friends and acquaintances have with her husband, conversations that cast some doubt on how happy she actually has been in her marriage. She is said to have been yearning for the life she started out on, before meeting Marc and throwing it all over for marriage and a family. She'd been an art student, expecting to devote her entire life to being an artist. The definition of art and its demands is to my mind curiously out of date - it envisions a life devoted solely to art, to the exclusion of any responsibility for the ordinary requirements of domestic life. Since Alex's interest lies in performance art, an ephemeral form if there ever was one, the sacrifices she would have to make to pursue an artist's life would seem hardly worth it.

Somewhere along the way, Alex recounts a moment when she and her daughter had an argument in an art gallery. Lizzie prefers a figurative still life by Vanessa Bell to her mother's choice of a Ben Nicholson abstraction called "Still Life." Lizzie likes the Bell because it's "normal" art; Alex is appalled. Lizzie does not want to be different; Alex wants her to do "brilliant things." In the end, Alex storms out of the gallery, leaving her little girl to pick up what pieces she can. What I found particularly interesting about this moment is the choice of the artist that Lizzie rejects. Ben Nicholson was the father of sculptor Barbara Hepworth's triplets, born five years before the pair married. In the scenario that Alex develops throughout the book, Hepworth should have had a stark choice - to reject the kids or abandon the sculpture. It did not work out quite that way. Hepworth found a nursery-training college that was pleased to take care of the babies; later they went to boarding school as middle-class children of the day commonly did. Hepworth writes: "A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate) - one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one's mind."

Nicholson, on the other hand, conformed more closely to the conventional male-artist pattern, leaving his first wife, artist Winifred Nicholson, to raise their three children.

Although the debate in this book (and the hook that is likely to recommend it to book groups) centres on the limitations imposed on women by the expectations of a society that demands of women a sacrificial devotion to family while granting men a larger degree of autonomy, it is posed in terms that seem rather stale. I doubt that many readers will be unduly surprised at the resolution of the plot; some, at least, will be left with questions and even disbelief.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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