Chloë Ashby – Wet Paint

Cloe Ashby – We Paint

Eve has lost her mother when she left the 5-year-old and her father and never made contact again. Even though she somehow managed to cope with this experience, losing her best friend Grace totally throws her off the track. At 26, she is waiting in a bar despite having studied art at Oxford. Yet, she does not keep that job for long, just like any other job or the flat she shares. Nothing seems to linger in her life except for the painting she visits over and over again in a London museum and Max, a teenage friend. But even for Max it becomes increasingly harder to see how Eve throws away her life and does not accept any help.

Chloë Ashby’s debut novel brilliantly captures the protagonist’s being lost in the world after the death of a beloved friend that she has never gotten over. “Wet Paint” shows a young woman in survival mode who is far from unleashing her potential as she is straying in her life without aim or goal, from time to time colliding with reality but more often lost in thought and locked away in herself.

Eve is incapable of good relationships as she is far from being at ease with herself. Connecting with other people, being honest and really caring for them is impossible for her in state she is in. The only other being she shows real affection for is the young girl she babysits, but here, too, she is too lost in her thoughts and puts herself and the girl in danger.

The only constant in her life is a painting she observes closely and which calms her. Just the thought of the museum closing for a holiday makes her get nervous and when the museum loans her beloved pieces of art to another one, she almost freaks out, losing the last straw in her life.

It is not easy to watch how a young woman, lovable despite the way she treats others, is going down the abyss, yet, you can only help those that want to be helped. That’s what some characters also experience, they really care for her but can’t do anything to as long as she refuses to acknowledge her situation and to take necessary measures to improve her situation.

Not an easy read but in my opinion an authentic representation of the protagonist’s state of emergency.

Antoine Wilson – Mouth to Mouth

Antoine Wilson – Mouth to Mouth

The narrator, an unsuccessful writer, is on his way to Berlin when he coincidentally meets a former fellow student at JFK airport. Jeff, too, remembers him immediately even though they haven’t seen each other for two decades. As their flight is delayed, they decide to spend the waiting time together and update each other about what they have done in the last twenty years. Jeff’s life was marked by an incident on the beach, when he saw a man drowning. He could save him but not forget the occurrence. He starts enquiring about him and soon finds out that Francis Arsenault is a successful art dealer. Jeff becomes more and more fixated on the man, wondering if he remembers that he was his saviour. When he gets to work at Francis’ gallery, this is the beginning of a major change in his life – yet, will he ever get the chance to reveal what brought him there in the first place?

Antoine Wilson has chosen an interesting framework for his story which puts the reader in the same place as the writer who mainly just sits there and listens to Jeff’s account. You know that what he tells is highly subjective, only one side of the story is presented in a way that Jeff wants to put it, but nevertheless, quasi as a former friend, you are willing to believe him not knowing where all this is going to lead to. “Mouth to Mouth” is highly intriguing from the first page, due to a very clever foreshadowing, you are aware that there must be something behind Jeff’s need to tell his life story, but you keep wondering what that could be.

“’Who better than someone who was there at the beginning?’ – ‘You said that before. Only I’m not sure why it matters.’ ‘You knew me then. That I had a good heart.’“

Repeatedly, Jeff stresses that he has a good heart, that he only wanted the best for others, that he did do nothing wrong and just like the narrator, you wonder why he keeps on stressing that point. Saving somebody from downing is surely an admirable act, selfish and courageous. That he started following Francis then and slowing crept into his life is not that honest but he didn’t do no harm. So you keep on reading eager to figure out what will ultimately make Jeff appear in a totally different light.

“Just think, if I had somehow not saved Francis’s life, if instead he’d died on that beach, everything that came after would not have happened like it did.”

The novel raises the big question about what might have happened if just one incident of your life hadn’t happened, or had turned out differently. Many things of our everyday life do not have life changing consequences, but some do. And everybody knows this pondering about the “what if”. Connected to this is inevitably the question of necessary consequences, of a bigger plan behind it all.

In Francis’s case, he was granted more time on earth due to Jeff’s intervention, but did he use that time wisely? He is a reckless art dealer and the closer Jeff gets and the more he learns about him, the more he wonders how that man deals with the big gift he was given. At the same time, he gets insight into the shiny art’s business which is all but shiny behind the facade and which is, well, just a business where money is made.

A brilliantly plotted novel which is thought-provoking and play well with the reader’s expectations and emotions.

Danielle McLaughlin – The Art of Falling

Nessa McCormack and her husband Philip have just sorted out their marriage after Philip’s affair when ghosts of the past reappear. Her former best friend’s son Luke and his father Stuart appear out of nowhere after almost two decades without any contact. After Luke’s mother’s suicide they did not stay in touch, not only because times where difficult but also because Nessa and Stuart had a brief affair. Also at work things become complicated when Nessa is curating an exhibition of sculptor Robert Locke and a mysterious woman appears who claims to have created the most impressive piece of the exhibition. Yet, Locke’s widow and daughter claim to have provided all materials and never to have heard of the woman. However, she has set her mind on finally being recognised as an artist.

The most striking about Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is the protagonist and her development throughout the story. Apart from this, the dynamics between the characters is also remarkable, set in motion by the classic sins which you can find almost all in the novel: pride, lust, greed, wrath, sloth – you name it. They have always belonged to mankind, so why not to 21st century characters, too?

At the beginning of the novel, Nessa is on the one hand disappointed and fells devalued by her husband since he not only had an affair but chose a woman who isn’t even the slightest attractive in her opinion. On the other hand, her husband’s misconduct brings her into a morally superior position which she quite unashamedly exploits. She has got a big project in her job which will automatically come with a lot of kudos, undoubtedly, she is good at what she’s doing and an expert of the sculptor she curates. But small lapses leave cracks and with the appearance of the mysterious woman, the cracks start to deepen and threaten her reputation. At the same time, her daughter first seems to be on her husband’s side – the cheater! – and then openly opposes her mother to take sides of the other woman. There is not much left in her life which works according to plan and Nessa becomes increasingly irritable – until a secret, well-kept for many years – suddenly surfaces and threatens to destroy it all.

A lot of moral questions are addressed in the novel without providing simplistic answers or role models. The dramatic structure also creates the suspense that keeps you reading on.  A compelling read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Leïla Slimani – Le parfum des fleurs la nuit

Leila Slimani – Le parfum des fleurs la nuit

Quand l‘écrivaine Leïla Slimani est offerte une nuit blanche au sein de la Punta della Dogana (Pointe de la Douane), musée au cœur de Venise, elle accepte comme son roman actuel ne veut pas avancer. Mais, non seulement la possibilité de se trouver seul avec des chef-d’œuvre d‘art la séduit, mais l‘idée d‘être enfermée. Pour elle, c‘est dans les petites pièces renfermées que l‘inspiration vienne. Loin du monde avec soi-même, les personnages lui parlent et l‘histoire naît. Les heures avec des sculptures et des tableaux lui entraînent avant tout à une réflexion de son travail comme écrivaine, de l‘art en général et de sa propre histoire entre deux cultures.

« Les musées continuent de m‘apparaître comme des lieux écrasants, des forteresses dédiées à l‘art, à la beauté, au génie et où je me sens toute petite. »

Le roman de Leïla Slimani est avant tout la documentation de son flux de conscience pendant cette nuit qui coule d‘un sujet à l‘autre. D‘abord, elle se trouve face à des œuvres d‘art extraordinaires, mais elle se sent inférieure comme elle n‘a jamais développé une attitude détendue envers eux. Elle avait toujours l‘idée qu‘il fallait sentir quelque chose de singulier et de voir le génie du créateur immédiatement.

« Je suis sans doute bête. Ou bien c‘est l‘escalope milanaise qui me pèse sur l‘estomac et m‘empêche de faire le moindre effort de réflexion. »

Mais, la peinture comme la littérature est plutôt une interaction entre l‘œuvre et la personne qui le regarde ou lit et qui s‘ouvre pour avoir un échange. Ainsi, tout interprétation est correcte. La littérature comme une partie intégrale de sa vie mène nécessairement à son enfance, ses parents et son enfance entre le Maroc et la France.

« Mes parents voulaient que nous soyons des femmes libres, indépendantes, capables d‘exprimer des choix et des opinions. »

Le livre n‘est ni roman ni essai mais une réflexion continue, Slimani nous laisse participer à sa nuit au musée et ainsi partage aussi son processus créatif. J’ai bien aimé suivre ses pensées très personnelles qui montrent aussi un côté vulnérable de l’écrivaine.

Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

When the young aspiring painter arrives in New York to become a real artist, she encounters the already famous quintet that calls itself “Pine City“ after the place they work. Jes, Marlin, Jack, Tyler and especially Carey are the up-coming big names in the art world and all that the unnamed narrator dreams of: self-confident, relaxed, comfortable in themselves. A couple of years later, she is at the threshold of making herself a name when her apartment burns down and with it several pieces of work that were meant to be shown just a couple of weeks later. She had stored them at home, not at safe place as she tells her curator, thus, she has to act quickly and rebuild them. An impossible task, even more so if you do not even have a work place anymore. She luckily finds an interim solution: a friend brings her at the heart of the circle she once admired and which has been reduced to a quartet after Carey’s suicide. It was her especially that she looked up to and felt connected with. Maybe staying there might give her some insight in why she decided to end her life.

I really dived into the novel and was immediately hooked by Barbara Bourland’s novel. The young artist who is insecure and admires those who already succeeded. I also appreciated the insight in a painter’s work, how her emotions lead to results when she manages to channel them into the art. Interestingly also to glance behind the façade of the art and culture circus – you get the impression that it is just this: a façade, a cover-up to please, a pretence – without any solid foundation or walls. However, I got a bit lost when the plot developed too much into a love story.

I enjoyed the author’s style of writing and the combination of the art world with a touch of mystery. Yet, apart from the protagonist, it was hard to support the characters who were nor only shallow but pretentious and affected, and who took themselves and their work by far too serious. Just like the characters, the overall plot was also a bit trivial and lacked the depth and analysis or insight in the art work I had expected. The mystery surrounding the suicide of Carey, too, did not really show any suspense. An interesting read with a very strong beginning but a bit lengthy from the middle on.

Clare Clark – In the Full Light of the Sun

Clare Clark – In the Full Light of the Sun

The 1920s are tough in post-war Germany, but the show must go on and the art market flourishes despite all economic struggles. Yet, where money can be made, fraudsters aren‘t far away. Julius is a Berlin based art dealer and specialist in van Gogh; Rachmann is a young Düsseldorf art expert who is hoping to make a career in the business, too; Emmeline is a talented artist and rebel. Since the art world is a small one, their paths necessarily cross and one of the biggest frauds in art links them.

I have been a lover of novels set in the 1920s and 1930s in Berlin since this was a most inspiring and interesting time of the town. Not just big politics after the loss in the first word war and then the rise of the Nazi party, but also the culture and entertainment industries were strong and the whole world looked at the German capital. Quite logically, Clare Clark‘s novel caught my interest immediately. However, I am a bit disappointed because the book couldn‘t live up to the high expectations.

I appreciate the idea of narrating the scandal from three different perspectives and points in time. The downside of this, however, was that the three parts never really merge into one novel but somehow remain standing next to each other linked only loosely. At the beginning, I really enjoyed the discussions about art and van Gogh‘s work, but this was given up too quickly and replaced with the characters‘ lamentations and their private problems which weren‘t that interesting at all and made reading the novel quite lengthy.


Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

Yasmina Reza – Art

Yasmina Reza – Art

Serge, Marc und Yvan sind schon lange befreundet und haben so manche schwierige Situation miteinander gemeistert, jetzt allerdings wird die Freundschaft auf eine harte Probe gestellt. Als der Ingenieur Marc den Arzt Serge zu Hause besucht, führt dieser ihm stolz seine neueste Errungenschaft vor: er hat ein Gemälde gekauft, einen echten Antrios! 200 000 Francs hat er dafür ausgegeben, aber sie lohnen sich ohne Frage. Marc teilt diese Einschätzung nicht ganz, denn als er das Bild betrachtet, sieht er nur eins: eine weiße Fläche. Ach, der Ingenieur ist einfach zu rational, um die feinen Linien in weiß zu erkennen. Marc bleibt bei seinem Standpunkt, Serge ist verärgert. Ihr Freund Yvan gerät zwischen die beiden, denn jeder möchte von ihm seine jeweilige Sichtweise bestätigt haben. Doch Yvan hat eigentlich ein ganz anderes Problem: seine Hochzeit steht kurz bevor und die Frauen der beiden Familien sind in Krieg ausgebrochen. Hier ist die Lösung für seine Freunde jedoch einfach: absagen, die Braut ist ohnehin die falsche für ihn.

Yasmina Rezas Theaterstückt „Art“ („Kunst“) ist zwar inzwischen fast 25 Jahre alt, aber noch genauso aktuell wie Mitte der 90er Jahre. Wie häufig bei ihr, ist das Setting nachrangig, eine durchschnittliche Wohnung, irgendwo in Paris, einmal mehr in der finanziell bessergestellten Oberschicht, die eigentlich die Konventionen von Contenance und Konversation beherrscht und sich auch vor Freunden keine Blöße gibt. Doch dies geht – wie so oft bei Reza – gehörig schief.

Im Zentrum steht die Diskussion um die Frage, was „Kunst“ ist und vor allem, was sie wert ist. Der Ingenieur Marc ist fassungslos, als er den Preis hört:

« Tu as acheté cette merde deux cent mille francs ? »

Serge weiß, dass es seinem Freund nicht leicht fällt, sich für Kunst zu interessieren, aber das Wort „Scheiße“ für sein neues Lieblingswerk nimmt er ihm dann doch übel. Yvan kann auch nur begrenzt vermitteln, er selbst ist eher indifferent gegenüber dem Gemälde und zu sehr mit seinen eigenen Sorgen belastet. Trotz der Versuche sich zurückzuhalten und die Sichtweise des anderen zu akzeptieren, eskaliert die Lage unweigerlich. Von dem einen Bild des Anstoßes hin zur Kunst im Allgemeinen wird die Diskussion irgendwann persönlich und damit sehr hässlich. Zuerst berichtet Yvan, dass er mit seinem Psychologen über seine beiden Freunde gesprochen hat, was diese sehr schlecht auffassen, bis sie bei den Partnerinnen landen und zum ersten Mal offen ihre Ablehnung zugeben.

Was höflich und freundlich mit kleinem Scherz beginnt, endet in der offenen Konfrontation, die sogar den Wunsch weckt, den anderen mit einem Faustschlag zum Schweigen zu bringen. Es ist dieser Kontorollverlust und das Hervorbringen der gut versteckten Gefühle und Meinungen, das Reza in ihren Werken immer wieder thematisiert und glaubwürdig umsetzt, etwas im „Gott des Gemetzels“ oder auch in „Babylone„. Man kann sich köstlich amüsieren dabei, wie sich die Figuren zerfleischen, um dann doch innezuhalten und sich selbst zu erkennen. Wie oft hat man doch der Freundschaft und des Anstands wegen seine Meinung nicht geäußert? Gibt es im intellektuellen Bürgertum überhaut echte Freundschaften, bei denen die Menschen ehrlich zu einander sind und sich nicht hinter Konventionen und Lügen verstecken? Ein meisterhaftes Lehrstück nicht nur über Kunst.

Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

Matt Santos is standing in an auction hall, looking at a picture, Budapest Street Scene by Ervin Kálmán. It will be sold the next day and he is ruminating about how this picture came to let him know more about his family than he ever did before and how it changed his life completely. His father had warned him about it, told him to let go, not to pursue the case any further, but he wouldn’t listen. So he is standing there on his own, alone, with his thoughts about his ex-girl-friend Tracy, whom he still loves, his lawyer Rachel, who helped him to get hold of the picture, and about his now deceased father.

Memento Park is not easy to summarise. It’s a novel about art, Jewish art in Nazi Europe; it’s about a complicated father-son relationship; it’s a story about people leaving their past behind and burying it down in the back of their minds after emigration; it’s about love and trust, and about religion and the faith you have and to what extent this creates your identity.

Matt is the child of Jewish family who suffered in Budapest under the Nazis, yet he doesn’t know anything about it. Even though he was never told anything about his family’s history, it lives on in him and through the relationship with his father. A father who does not seem to be loving or at least a bit affectionate. He is always distant and until the very end, Matt doesn’t understand why and he never asked. To me, this is the central aspect of the novel, even though I found the Kálmán story, his life and word, even though completely fictional but close to the stories of some artists of that time, also interesting.

Mark Sarvas chose an interesting title for his novel, “Memento Park” is the name of a location in Budapest where all the statues of former communist grandees are exhibited. It’s a way of dealing with the past, neither hiding nor ignoring it, but giving it a place where you can confront it; it’s just a part of life and it helped to shape – here to town and country – but also you as a person. In this way, there are more layers to the novel which make it a great reading experience.