Jan/Feb 1999 Book Reviews

The Underpainter

Author: Jane Urquhart
Publisher: Bloomsbury (October 1998)
ISBN: 0 7475 3521 3
Price: A$17.95 (paperback) 279 pages

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Henri always says that brilliance is moving towards colour, not towards white," says Austin Fraser to the eccentric Abbott Thayer. Yet, in his own life and in his painting he seeks colours which camouflage and conceal him just as surely as Thayer's blue jay becomes invisible in shadowed snow.

Always, Fraser has refused to look beneath surface appearances, to feel emotions, to be curious about people or to open himself, in any way, to the world. Like the 'erasures' he creates in his art, his life is scraped back and hidden beneath multiple surface layers. As in his art, life becomes disturbing only when some covered fragments seep through.

Yet it is not these seeped, blurred fragments of Fraser's life which disturb the reader as he tell his story, but the absences, the subtle emotions and connections which he ignores but which grow in the reader's mind so that we begin to question Fraser's humanity, to imagine the feelings of those whose lives he affects, and to judge him. In the end, we can only agree with his own self-assessment of what his life has been: "You have used everything around you. And for what? An arrangement of colours on a flat surface".

This book, however, is far more than a flat arrangement of colours. From the opening lines of the book, I found myself seduced by Urquhart's writing in a way I couldn't quite managed to explain. Her clear vision is reflected in language which is plain and quite ordinary, yet her art is subtle, delicate, multi-faceted and very moving. It is an art of shifting light and shade, as Fraser's tries to be, but her engagement with humanity is deep and she uses the language of painting in a sensual and erotic way which her narrator could never achieve.

Although they are absent from Fraser's life, love and humanity glow through this book. Urquhart's landscape is broad and yet intimately known. Her story moves between Rochester, New York, and Thunder Bay and Davenport in Canada, and it is set in the early twentieth century. Canadian mining history, the effects of war service on ordinary lives, fascinating details of china-painting and Victorian automata, art theory, social change - all form part of the 'underpainting' of Fraser's life.

Urquhart's rich perception of life, then, is quite unlike that of her narrator. How, I still wonder, can we agree so easily with Fraser's own assessment and account of his life, yet know that Jane Urquhart has shown us much more than a flat, smudgy surface. It is a trick which is elegantly and artfully performed and beautifully achieved.


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