Reviewed by Theresa Guihan
Night Street. Goose Lane Editions, 2012.
Describing a painting is no easy task. Brush strokes, colours, tones, and textures resist description. In her first novel, Night Street, Kristel Thornell takes paintings and painters as her subject and describes both with a commendable amount of precision and skill—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the subject of Night Street, Australian tonalist painter Clarice Beckett, died relatively unknown in the 1935. The discovery of a large cache of Beckett’s paintings in the 1960s finally brought her some of the recognition that she was denied in her active years. Tragically, however, many of the over one thousand paintings had begun to decompose and decay after being stored for over thirty years in an open-sided barn, exposed to the harsh elements of the Australian countryside. Thornell’s project is thus one of both recovery and invention; Night Street combines recorded biographical facts about Beckett with Thornell’s own ideas and impressions about what sort of life the artist might have lived. The fact that Thornell refers to her subject as “Clarice” in the novel and “Beckett” in her postscript serves to highlight the difference between the real Clarice Beckett and Thornell’s largely invented character. While some of Thornell’s inventions seem to be at odds with what is known about Beckett’s borderline-reclusive life (particularly her imagined affair with a married local artist), overall, Thornell’s evocative, atmospheric language blends perfectly with her subject matter and is unquestionably what makes this novel such a unique read. The result is a portrait of Beckett that appropriates many of the techniques favoured by the painter, particularly, as Thornell acknowledges in the postscript to her novel, “squinting to soften edges and reach beyond detail in search for patterns of light and shade” (241).
Night Street is divided into four sections that focus on different stages in Clarice’s personal and artistic lives between roughly 1915 and her death in 1935. The structure and content of the first section, Open Air, closely resembles that of the Künstlerroman. The novel opens with Clarice attending a lecture by Meldrum, a well-known player on the Melbourne art scene, and traces her formative years studying under this imposing and influential figure. Inspired by Meldrum’s “controversial, scientific approach to art” (6), Clarice decides to abandon her rigid, formal art classes for Meldrum’s Saturday lessons. Although Meldrum maintains that students should exclusively paint still life for the first two years of instruction, Clarice longs to “escape from interiors as fast as possible and be out in the open air, in real limitless space and tempting, fickle light” (10). The notion of escaping one’s confines—whatever they may be—is central to Thornell’s novel. For Clarice, painting is the ultimate form of escape from the societal and familial pressure to settle down and start a family, and she acknowledges that when painting, “you can be yourself” (69), even if that self chooses to eschew the conventions of the era. With the help of her bizarre-looking homemade customized mobile painting studio, Clarice is able to indulge her desire to paint landscapes in her own free time, which primarily comes in the early morning hours, before her day as unofficial caregiver to her parents begins.
In the next section, The First Blow, Clarice has become more self-confident both personally and artistically, largely due to Meldrum’s continued influence. Fittingly, Meldrum’s class is the scene of Clarice’s first encounter with Arthur, a fellow “Meldrumite.” When Clarice learns that Arthur has a wife, she feels “bitterness for that bouncy bubble of a word, Bella” (55). Thornell’s account of the affair—particularly Clarice’s feelings of guilt and remorse with regard to Bella—recalls the turbulent relationship chronicled in Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945). At just under one hundred pages, The First Blow is the longest section in Night Street. In spite of this, Arthur and Clarice’s affair feels somewhat forced and hurried without the passion and frenzy that characterize Smart’s work (which, incidentally, is just over one hundred pages long).
In the final two sections of the novel, Seascape and The Storm, Clarice unrepentantly gives herself over to her painting, filling her life with little else. Thornell writes that “from the outside, a woman’s life not furnished with a husband and child rearing would appear bleak, brittle, to most” (147). Clarice realizes that in “the dozen or so years after it ended with Arthur, little happened to her that most would have considered eventful. But those were fertile, full years, with a fullness eluding words, as fullness does” (148). Clarice’s life as a mature, self-assured artist is cut short after she is caught in a violent storm while painting, which results in her hospitalization with double pneumonia and her eventual death at the age of 48. Like the hundreds of canvases that would eventually decay after several decades of exposure to the elements, Clarice herself becomes a victim of the harsh Australian climate. While The Storm is set almost exclusively in the hospital room where Clarice spent her final days, in this final section, it is evident that Clarice has finally achieved the freedom that she always yearned for, as though the fever and occasional bouts of delirium help Clarice see the world in the misty, indistinct way that she always strove to capture in her paintings.
Thornell’s Night Street is a beautifully crafted and compelling novel that helps shed light on what life was life for a female artist at the beginning of the twentieth century. In spite of the paucity of information about the life of Beckett, Thornell has created a plausible and enjoyable account of the sort of life that Beckett could have lived. Thornell not only enchants the reader with her well-balanced descriptions that resemble the very portraits and landscapes they describe, but also turns the reader onto a supremely talented yet tragically overlooked and undervalued painter, Clarice Beckett.
At press time: Theresa Guihan is an MA in English at McGill University. Her primary research focuses on Victorian England, particularly opium use in the sensation novel and more recently, the nineteenth-century temperance movement. She lives in Montreal.
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