Portraiture, the art of depicting a person. With the advent of photography, the need to accurately record a sitter’s likeness gave way to more expressive forms, a raft of dimensions, for example psychological and emotional could be explored. Interestingly when you look at “people’s choice” award winners in National Portrait Prizes there is still a tendency to lean towards the more conservative “likeness” style works, with the expressionistic, or subtle nuances of other works being overlooked. Many times, I have seen people look at portraits in galleries, glance at the face and move on. However, if you stop, pause, and look deeply the more you may learn, it is not just the face, where is the subject looking, what are they observing, what are they wearing, clothing, jewelry, setting, tone, colour, furniture, the placement of the hands, are they holding something? There are a myriad of clues, hints that can give you a more in depth view of the sitter and the artist.
Amina Cain’s short novel ‘Indelicacy’ is primarily a portrait of the writer protagonist Vitória, but it is also a portrait that contains three other women, her hired help Solange, and her two friends Dana and Antionette.
Vitória works as a cleaner at a gallery, but she dreams of becoming a writer, she writes of the paintings she views whilst working, “The people in the painting are huddled together as if for protection, as if freezing cold.” This is a work that contains ekphrastic elements, Vitória reflects on the art works and creates an imaginative narrative, an amplification of the artwork’s meaning.
However. it is not only the artworks that she contemplates, a ultimately, writes about, it is also her own life, and that of her friends, her surroundings.
…the winter dragged itself though its January, its February, its March, with its dirty snow and frozen mud. I felt I was dragging myself through as well. I hated March more than any other month, with its promises of warmth that never came.
My writing was not unlike that. I would write, then read out loud what I had written and realise I was not any closer to a book than I had ever been. I began to hate writing, though I also still loved it.
I thought if I spent time in the country every day I would be able to write. Walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, walk again in the evening, then write again. Late at night, read, Then write again. Sleep.
One day I looked for a while at a small painting and saw something in it. A man and a boy in muted suits doing their engraving work, the background behind them completely dark. We are not meant to see anything beyond this task, their concentration on it. Yet we want to know, it is only a scrap. What is in the darkness?
This was my slogging through. Until spring came.
Eventually Vitória finds a wealthy husband, her dreams of being able to write become a reality. Now the mistress of the household she has hired help, people to clean up after her, and an uneasy relationship with Solange begins. Whilst cleaning her best friend was Antionette, with whom she loses touch, and once she has plenty of spare time she meets another friend Dana at dance classes. The female bonds are strong, and the portraits of these diverse women are slowly painted, layer by layer.
This work is even constructed like a painting, there is enough detail for you to picture the people, but the backgrounds are dark, the foregrounds light, the story very much implied in many places, you the viewer (or reader) has to create the depth in the narrative. Stop, pause, observe, why are the dishes on the table, why are the walls bare?
From then on, Dana asked to read from my notebook from time to time and then she would talk with me about what she’d read. ‘A humble sense of purpose,’ she said once, ‘and of fascination. You are fascinated by everything around you.’ On a few occasions I did let her take my notebook home, when I thought I wouldn’t need it, that it might be good for me to be without it for a while. If I found I wanted to write, I opened up the same book I had written in already and wrote there again. I had already defaced it, and I was starting to feel as if I were having a conversation with it.
A novel about writing, about female bonds and about life’s purpose, a wanderer who allows the day to day pass her by, simply observing and writing.
Astute readers would note the four character’s names, Vitória from Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Apple in the Dark’, Solange from Jean Ginet’s ‘The Maids’, Antionette from Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and Dana from ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler. These four works are credited in the acknowledgements and the short precise sentences did remind me of Jean Rhys’ works, with the darkness of Lispector. Passages from those works appear in the novel.
A novel that feels gothic in places, or from a Brother’s Grimm tale in others, for example her meeting her future husband and her marriage are mentioned in passing, it is peripheral to the portrait, the husband merely a player. As in the quote above “what is in the darkness?”, this novel has many dark corner’s on the canvas, things happen there but they are not for our eyes, Amina Cain drawing our attention to people in the portrait, Vitória, Antionette, Solange and Dana.
An interesting title, as the work itself feels delicate, it also has very different covers for the US and UK editions. The FSG cover for the United State’s market a glaring “wallpaper” style design, an abstract portrait? The UK cover a dark portrait by Gerard ter Borch (1617-81) titled ‘Margaretha van Haexbergen’. Visually I prefer the US cover, however based on content the UK seems to match better.
Short, precise and intriguing an ekphrastic novel constructed like a painting, a worthy contender for the 2021 Rathbone’s Folio Prize, for which it is shortlisted, worth hunting down.