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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Private View

Jean McNeil's third book is set in twenty-first century London. Alex is a thirty-something artist whose ability to create has been frustrated by a mysterious disaster in a Central American jungle. She has returned to London and the trauma of the accident has left her with huge gaps in her memory. She cannot conjure up more that a misty memory of her boyfriend Ben who was killed in the accident. She moves in with Ben's artist friend, Conrad, one of the few people who can accept her grief.  He is tormented by his past and struggles with mental illness although this is not immediately revealed.
The London art scene is cutthroat and the young bohos who swim around in it are profoundly superficial and unlikeable. The artists' careers hang on the whim of the art critics; one bad review and they are done like dinner. None of them are starving, in fact they live very well in great apartments in one of the most expensive cities in the world but as they approach their mid-thirties they begin to take stock of their lives and worry about what the future holds. Lots of angst here. McNeil's portrayal of the city and its artscene rings true.
There are pieces missing that gradually fall into place. Chapters set in the Guatemalan jungle are interspersed with those set in central London. As the true horror that Alex has endured is revealed the roots of her malaise become clear.
I liked that the story and the way its characters are revealed bit by bit; there are little surprises throughout. It received a well-deserved nomination for a Governor General's Award in 2003 (I was surprised to learn that Jean McNeil was raised in Nova Scotia). I recommend this book to those who appreciate a novel that is atmospheric, quirky and wry rather than plot driven.

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