The Colony – Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee’s The Colony came on my radar thanks as always to Book Twitter and also because of its inclusion on the 2022 Booker Prize longlist. It’s such a terrific novel, very deserving of the accolades being heaped upon it.

More than halfway through the book, Mr Lloyd, an Englishman and Mr Masson, a Frenchman, are typically engaged in another one of their combative conversations. Mr Masson, a linguist and a passionate supporter of endangered languages, resents the Englishman, fearing his unhealthy influence on the island’s residents, the unwelcome changes that will be felt not only in how they communicate but also in the way they think. Mr Lloyd, a painter, looking to revive his artistic career, has arrived on the island seeking solitude and introspection, some much needed inspiration for his art, but the Frenchman’s presence threatens to derail his plans. The two can’t stand each other and Masson, particularly, laments how Lloyd’s presence is slowly resulting in the island’s younger generation switching to speaking English rather than preserve their Irish roots. Lloyd, of course, does not see the problem in that; it is after all a matter of choice. And he, in turn, goads Masson, questioning the Frenchman’s hypocrisy – why does Masson wax so eloquently on Irish heritage and criticize England, when his own country France has colonized Algeria. So why isn’t Masson fighting to preserve Arabic culture in Algeria?

This is just one of the many ideas and exchanges that lace Audrey Magee’s The Colony, an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

A LAYERED STORY & VIBRANT CAST OF CHARACTERS

The Colony is set around the time of the Troubles, a very violent period for England and Ireland who were at loggerheads over the fate of Northern Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Carrying his easel and other painting paraphernalia, he enlists the help of two boatmen to ferry him across the waters to the island, even though he is fairly warned of how arduous the journey will be. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, complaining of certain aspects of the cottage rented not being to his requirements, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule.

After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and known to the islanders because he had stayed there in the prior years too for the purposes of his research. To Masson, an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence.

The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

We then come to the island’s residents themselves, four generations of a fisherman family residing there; a family which forms the cornerstone of Masson’s research.

The oldest is Bean Uí Fhloinn, the great grandmother, who is ancient in every sense of the word and speaks and understands only Irish, refusing to let outside influences sway her. She remains Masson’s favourite character, a sort of a symbol of her heritage, a potent bulwark against foreign influences. Masson assiduously records her talk on his tape-recorder, reveling in the unique inflections and patterns in her manner of speech. Her daughter, Bean Uí Néill, understands English but does not speak it and in that sense is closer in outlook to her mother. The next generation, Bean Uí Néill’s daughter Mairéad and Mairéad’s son James are a different kettle of fish (pun intended), more welcoming of the Englishman and his thinking. Lloyd’s influence is palpable in Mairéad and James; Mairéad begins to speak some English when she is with him, while James the truly bilingual one in the family, easily fluent in both English and Irish, sticks to speaking English around him. James is enamoured by Lloyd’s profession as an artist and aspires to be an artist himself ready to travel with Lloyd to London for an exhibition; he rebels against his family tradition of being a fisherman, not interested in the least to emulate his late father, uncle and grandfather – fishermen who drowned many years ago in a storm.

James seethes about being holed up on the island and while he performs his duties of catching rabbits for dinner, he shows no aptitude for training as a fisherman. Slowly but surely he begins to spend more and more time with Lloyd, entranced by his paintings, and even begins to dabble in art himself. James also dislikes Masson for the latter’s insistence on calling him by his Irish name Seamus, despite James vocally expressing his displeasure.

Mairéad grieves her husband who drowned along with her brother and father and begins wondering whether household chores are all she is destined to do and if there is life beyond the island. She sleeps with Masson, which everyone is aware of; and in an intense desire to venture into unchartered territory she also begins to secretly model for Lloyd during the day, a fact that she keeps to herself although suspicions are subsequently roused.

Last but not the least are Francis and Micheál…Francis is Mairéad’s brother-in-law and wishes to eventually marry her, he is conservative to the core and remains dubious of Lloyd’s intentions. While Micheál is the typical businessman who sniffing an opportunity, promises both Masson and Lloyd a quiet accommodation without informing beforehand of the other man’s presence, purely motivated by money.

The island seems cut-off from the mainland, but news from the north filters through to its inhabitants leading to fraught discussions. Alternating between the narratives on the island are short reportage-type paragraphs highlighting bombing and terrorist activities, as well as murder and killings rampant from both the Irish and the English side.  

THOUGHT-PROVOKING THEMES AND IDEAS

The Colony, then, is an allegorical tale; a rich, unique, multilayered novel on the complexities of colonization, the nuances associated with embracing global culture, evolution of society and what it means to preserve culture and heritage in an ever-changing world. It’s a meditation on language and identity and how the two are often interconnected.

The legacy of colonialism and its complications, particularly, forms the nucleus of the novel. Going back in history, European countries such as Britain, France, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal among others were notorious in amassing colonies in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; they were rivals showing off not only their military strength but also the nations they ruled which were termed as “colonies”; countries they captured through the guise of trade and by taking advantage of their political weakness. Yes, there was progress made in infrastructure, healthcare and literacy, but one could not deny the loss of identity, widespread exploitation and constant conflict either.

In the book, the gradual death of Irish language and heritage and the emergence of English as a potent force is a topic explored through Masson’s dissertation as he observes the four generations of inhabitants on that remote island.  Often, history is an account of victories and conquests, the winners script the narrative, the vanquished are pushed to the margins, their stories obliterated. The same holds true for languages, why some die, others evolve and a few like the English language take centre-stage globally. As various nations seek progress, growth and rapid change in the quest for better opportunities and improved standards of living, the language that is widely accepted globally becomes the chief mode of communication, and in the tryst between English and Irish, the annals of history gave greater weight to the former.

The novel also explores the tug of war between the idea of embracing new cultures and expanding one’s outlook versus fiercely protecting one’s heritage and resisting change – James is the voice of the younger generation, ambitious, willing to experiment and seek better opportunities for himself rather than being tied down by tradition and the old way of life. His great grandmother is the complete opposite, preferring to preserve her roots, resisting change with an iron will and happy to be self-sufficient and exist within the confines of the island; content with her world however narrow it is and not at all interested in broadening her outlook. 

Masson, himself, is a complex character in this regard. He might hate the English for playing a major role in diminishing the worth of the Irish language and roots, but has somewhat of a complicated history himself as evinced from the series of flashbacks that offer glimpses into his childhood. Born to a French father and an Algerian mother, Masson’s mother takes great pains to educate her son in Arabic but Masson resists it with all his might as he identifies more with his French roots. Masson’s father is an uncouth soldier, and the mother finds herself increasingly isolated, yearning for a life of literature, culture and ideas. She finds solace in frequenting Arabic cafes with its atmosphere of intellectual discussions, and tries to project some of her hopes onto Masson but to no avail. Here’s Masson’s father inwardly lashing at the Algerians…

…indifferent to his status as a decorated soldier, indifferent when those men should be on their knees in gratitude to him for his service to the country, for risking his life against the savages in Algeria, those dirty nomads who emerged from the desert sands to demand independence from France when it was France that paved their streets, educated their children, built their towns, their town halls, their schools, hospitals, houses, supplied their water, their sanitation. All of it built by France.

The book also dwells on questions of what constitutes art, the professional but nebulous relationship between an artist and his pupil, what can be recorded and what can’t and how the views accordingly vary, and of course the process itself of creating art.

He drew waves pounding the rock, sea hammering the cliff, ocean crashing into the island. He drew water foaming and frothing, water splashing, water surging, page after page, none of it capturing the thundering roar of the Atlantic Ocean on its passage east from America, south-east from the Arctic Circle. How do you draw noise, Mr Lloyd? How do I paint the clangour of battle between ocean and land, sea and rock? The sounds reverberating against the stone, cracking the air? The raucousness of gulls? Of terns? I draw them open-beaked, but still they are silent.

UNIQUE WRITING STYLE

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths. As the book progresses, often, we see shifts in perspectives in the middle of a paragraph reminiscent of Galgut’s writing particularly in The Promise. Through her crisp, spare writing style punctuated with bursts of poetic intensity, Magee brilliantly conveys a stream of ideas and brings out the intricacies of the themes she explores through myriad perspectives. The first quarter of the novel has a filmic feel to it particularly when we are inside Lloyd’s mind as he perceives his surroundings in terms of paintings he might be inspired to create.

They left the harbour, passing rocks blackened and washed smooth by waves, gulls resting on the stagnant surface, starting as they rowed past.

self-portrait: with gulls and rocks

self-portrait: with boatmen, gulls and rocks

TO CONCLUDE WITH SOME POINTS TO PONDER

In a nutshell, The Colony is a brilliant book, a worthy inclusion on the Booker Prize longlist, one that explores contentious issues – colonialism, violence, culture – that remain topics of intense debates even today. As an Indian, it forced me to think a bit about British colonial rule in India and its implications. While Indians have reaped benefits of being fluent in the English language and have emerged as a force to reckon with on the global centre-stage, the question still remains – would we have progressed had the British not ruled the country for over 200 years? Amartya Sen has penned a very insightful article in this regard for The Guardian. I’ll leave you with the following paragraphs from his piece…

“It is extremely hard to guess with any confidence what course the history of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British conquest not occurred. Would India have moved, like Japan, towards modernisation in an increasingly globalising world, or would it have remained resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or would it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?

“I was persuaded that Marx was basically right in his diagnosis of the need for some radical change in India, as its old order was crumbling as a result of not having been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).

There was arguably, however, a serious flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his implicit presumption that the British conquest was the only window on the modern world that could have opened for India. What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, but that is not the same thing as imperialism. The distinction is important.”

Letters to Gwen John – Celia Paul

I love books on art and creativity as well as hybrid narratives where the boundaries between genres are blurred – recent case in point being Nathalie Leger’s superb Suite for Barbara Loden. Celia Paul’s gorgeous work Letters to Gwen John, therefore, ticked all the right boxes for me.

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, aging and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

THE SIMILARITIES – A SMORGASBORD OF ASSOCIATIONS

Celia begins her narrative by highlighting the four postcards of paintings that are her personal favourites; one of them being the work titled The Convalescent by Gwen John (“Just one look at this reproduction of Gwen John’s painting and my breathing becomes easier”), and which also caught my attention because it graces the cover of my Virago edition of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  

We learn that both Gwen and Celia were students at the prestigious Slade School of Art. Gwen, particularly, came from an artistically inclined family. Her mother Augusta, an artist, named her younger brother who she loved dearly Augustus, and later there would be Auguste Rodin in Gwen’s life. Augustus was the first to gain entry into this prestigious art school, and Gwen subsequently followed.

The two men in Celia Paul’s life (first Lucian Freud and then her husband Steven Kupfer) had girlfriends called Kate before they met Celia, and Celia has a younger sister Kate who she is closest to, while Steven’s mother was called Kathe. And then Lucian was named after his mother Lucie because “she sensed a special bond with him at first sight.”

LOVE, BURNING PASSION AND YEARNING

Celia Paul then goes on to elaborate how both women fell deeply in love with and were profoundly influenced by men – the sculptor Auguste Rodin for Gwen and the artist Lucian Freud for Celia.

Gwen’s passion for Rodin is all consuming and claustrophobic. Initially posing as a model for him, that professional relationship quickly transforms into an affair. The passion that Gwen feels for Rodin is so intense, that when he is not around, the pining and yearning for him destabilizes her to the detriment of her art.

Celia experiences something similar. She meets Lucian while still studying at the Slade and a passionate affair soon develops. His absences keep her on tenterhooks; the debilitating longing for him affects her art. Disillusioned by the painting techniques taught at the Slade, Celia draws inspiration from Lucian in many aspects while attempting her paintings. And yet it’s a relationship fraught with awkwardness. Celia outlines the contrasting attitudes of the two women while posing as models for their paramours; Gwen is uninhibited while sitting for Rodin and posing comes naturally to her. But for Celia it is sometimes a momentous effort, partly because she is disconcerted by Lucian’s objective, piercing gaze.

There are differences also in how these relationships play out. Gwen’s intense feelings for Rodin finds an outlet in a frenzy of letters she sends to him where she unabashedly writes about how his lengthening spells of absences torment her. The single-minded nature of her emotions alarm Rodin to the point that he is concerned for her, but is also gradually driven away. Celia’s relationship with Lucian goes one step further; she has a son with him named Frank. But this is a romance that also peters out, a development that Celia gratefully welcomes with a sense of relief as time rolls on.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Letters to Gwen John is a book about women artists establishing their own identity in a field often dominated by men. Although encouraged in her art by her brother Augustus, Gwen often feels smothered by his proximity and influence and longs to get away so that she can blossom on her own and evolve independently as the artist she wants to be.

Both women strive for personal space, a physical domain they can truly call their own, a stamp of their monk-like personality. More importantly, it is free from the influence of their lovers, Auguste and Lucian, who can enter this private world as mere visitors and nothing more, the sharing of space strictly forbidden.

This desire is born out of the need for freedom to pursue their art (“We can be free if we are unseen. We are like nocturnal animals”), as well as a way to connect with their inner world (“Your aim has, always, was to lead a more and more interior life. We remain remote”).

SOLITIDE OR COMPANY?

Celia Paul has very eloquently painted a picture of the conflict that rages inside her – the aching need for solitude to practice her craft…

The peace is profound and it enters your soul to the extent that, even when you step outside, all sounds seem to be at a remove. The silence of the great ancient yew trees surrounding the tower seems to be at one with your own inner silence.

…which battles with the craving for company to ward off loneliness and old age.

I often think of those old women whom I have painted, my mother included, and I wonder at their quiet patience, and what inner reserves of strength they must draw on to keep up their courage and power to endue, riven as they all must be by memories and fear of the approaching dark.

ART & MOTHERHOOD – A DELICATE BALANCING ACT

One of my favourite books some years ago was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmentary novella that dwells on the loss of identity and the mundaneness of new motherhood, where the protagonist laments that “she wanted to be an art monster.” Celia Paul experiences something of that as well. She wants to be a mother, Lucian encouraged it as well (although his relationship with their son Frank remained awkward and distant), and when the baby is born, Celia realizes that the demands of motherhood often clash with the discipline and quiet required for her art. And she struggles with this knowledge.

As a single parent of an angry adolescent son, I was in the spotlight, out of the shadows. Everything about me was exposed and judged. This exposure, and the world’s judgement that came with the exposure, is what prevented me from working truthfully. I was judged by Lucian, by my son, by my mother, by Bella. I lost confidence. There was no way, in the world’s eyes, that I could be a good mother – and I wanted to be a good mother now – while at the same time being a painter wholly committed to her art.

AN ODE TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I also loved the sections of the book that emphasized on the intricacies of the art-making process – the mixing of exotically named paints (Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Blue and so on), the challenges of the finished painting aligning with the artist’s vision, that ‘a-ha’ moment when you know that it has shaped up the way you had visualized it.

Painting is different from writing. A notebook or a laptop is a compact space for creativity. In order to paint you need paraphernalia: a palette, brushes, canvases, easel, and a room to yourself where it’s possible to be uninhibited – you need to be unconcerned about drips of paint landing on the carpet or staining the walls. We use words all the time. But painting is an acquired language that you need to practice every day, like playing an instrument: if you don’t, you lose your gift.

Akin to an image that quickly emerges from the deft strokes of a brush, these nuances of the artistic process are revealed to us in the later letters which focus on two of her paintings – “Copper Beech, Hampstead Heath” and “Weeping Willow”. Celia expertly illustrates the trials of completing these paintings, sometimes working on one painting only to move on to the other one and the unwavering focus required bringing it to fruition. And how the nature of the painting itself changes along the way.

BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WONDERFUL WRITING

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. Through her frank, unadorned, graceful narrative style, Celia Paul draws us into her solitary world where the sea that “gently washes and laps like milk tilted from side to side in a bowl”, and the incoming waves that “obediently follow each other, like sheep brought home to the fold”, has as much of a calming effect on the reader as it does on Paul. A fabulous fusion of biography and memoir, the book is an illuminating depiction of two female artists, their ascetic personalities, the desire to assert their independence while making art, and how their art becomes a steadying force and pillar of strength while navigating personal difficulties and turbulence in their lives. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

In a nutshell, the rich palette of themes, the quiet confessional tone of Celia Paul’s letters and the melancholic beauty of the artworks meld into a unique form that is a work of art by itself; the stillness and peace captured becomes a joy to truly savour.

Art in Nature – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

I love Tove Jansson’s books. Many years ago, I was very impressed with The True Deceiver published by NYRB Classics, while The Summer Book by the same publisher found a place on my Best of 2021 list. And now, Art in Nature, published by Sort Of Books, is another work of hers I would highly recommend.

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection. The scene of action is a summer art exhibition, outdoors in a park, and our protagonist is the caretaker, the only member of staff to stay overnight at the exhibition premises. He is proud of this art show where the mediums of expression on display are so varied – painting, graphic arts and the like…but what the caretaker loves best are the sculptures.

They grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing. They stood everywhere among the birches as if they’d sprung up from the soil, and when the summer night arrived and the mist drifted in from the lake they were as beautiful as granite crags or withered trees.

One night past the closing hours, he comes across a bonfire, cans of beer and a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they have recently purchased. They are quarrelling because they can’t see eye-to-eye on what this contemporary work essentially conveys. Until the caretaker surprises them with a whole new perspective on how they can view it.

One of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art. A young cartoonist, Sam Stein, is employed by a leading newspaper to step into the shoes of his predecessor – the popular and famous Allington who one fine day suddenly decides to step down. Allington is the creator of Blubby, a comic strip that has run for 20 fruitful years, guaranteeing his success.

Not ready to tamper with something that has worked so well, the newspaper decides to keep the comic strip running without Allington’s absence being noticed by his loyal readers, but this would involve hiring another artist to continue the strip in Allington’s name. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of rising cartoonist Sam Stein, and while the job is by no means a piece of cake, Stein rises up to the challenge. Working in Allington’s room and surrounded by his paraphernalia, Stein remains tormented by the suspense surrounding Allington’s disappearance and he wishes to dig deeper into the incident.

All he wanted was to try and find Allington. He needed to understand. He had a seven-year contract and he needed to be calmed or alarmed, one or the other, but he had to know.

What he subsequently discovers depresses him even further and he begins to question his sanity and the merits of his profession.

Jealousy and rivalry take centrestage in “The Doll’s House”, which begins on an innocuous note but steadily descends into violence. The artist in this tale is Alexander, an upholsterer of the old school, exceptionally skilled with a “craftsman’s natural pride in his work.” Alexander has lived in an apartment for 20 years with Erik, a banker by profession. Despite their vocations being as different as chalk and cheese, both men “have the same respect for lovely objects.” A day dawns when Alexander finally hangs up his boots and sells his upholstery workshop, while Erik retires from the bank.

They put Alexander’s samples in a cupboard and drank champagne to celebrate their new freedom.

Adapting to their new circumstances is difficult at first…

In fact, he (Alexander) didn’t care about reading as much as he once had. Perhaps books had tantalized him only as a stolen luxury in the middle of a working day.

But then Alexander is struck by the idea of building a doll’s house; a hobby that completely engrosses him to the point of obsession. Cracks begin to appear in his relationship with Erik who is relegated to the role of cooking and cleaning, while Alexander continues to be absorbed in his newfound passion. And when Alexander strikes up a friendship with a man who shares his zeal for the doll house, Erik’s role in the household further diminishes, a development that has repercussions.

Accurate portrayal of a part in a play or film requires study and research and this path takes an unexpected and novel turn in “A Leading Role”.

It was the biggest part she’d ever been given, but it didn’t suit her, it didn’t speak to her.

In this tale, our protagonist, Maria Mickelson, is a theatre actress who is expected to portray a timid woman called Ellen, a proposition she considers challenging and difficult (“An insignificant, anxious, middle-aged woman, an obliterated creature without any personality whatsoever!”). But then she realizes that the role entrusted upon her bears an uncanny resemblance to the personality of her distant cousin, Frida. Taking advantage of the fact that Frida is enamoured by the glamour of the theatre milieu, Maria invites cousin Frida to spend a few days with her at their desolate house in the country.

It was early summer, and she had driven out to their country house to open it for the season. The weather was dreadful, an ice-cold fog as grey and impenetrable as the role of Ellen. Down by the dock, the reeds vanished out into the empty nothingness of the lake, and the spruce trees were black with moisture. The fog forced its way into the house and the fire wouldn’t burn.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation (“And Flora fell asleep on her fur coat and the day passed into evening and she awoke and drank a little champagne, just one glass so she could experience everything with that much greater clarity”), while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

Given that Tove Jansson was an artist herself – writer and creator of the Moomin strips – it’s perhaps no surprise that art and artists dominate much of these stories. The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process – the joys of being good at what you do, and the perils of being devoted to it to the exclusion of everything else.

The characters in these tales are often isolated individuals treading an unfamiliar terrain and often at odds with the demands of the outer world. In a nutshell, Art in Nature is a lovely book, another gem from Jansson’s oeuvre.

Cold Enough for Snow – Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures.

The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

Once in Japan, the daughter has chalked out various sightseeing activities for the two to enjoy and talk over. These involve visits to museums and galleries to appreciate art, leisurely meals at cafés and restaurants, and strolls along the canals on autumn evenings. While these settings constitute the present, they also form a focal point from which both women make journeys to their past. We learn that the mother is originally from Hong Kong but relocates after marriage to another city where she must begin life anew. She reflects on her Cantonese roots, the tale of her brother’s unrequited love and her childhood shaped by always being surrounded by people with no room for isolation.

The daughter narrates her experiences too – her student life studying literature and films, her admiration for her lecturer who lets her spend time alone in her house when she goes on holiday, her first job as a waitress, her relationship with her partner Laurie, her ambivalence towards motherhood (“I had never particularly wanted children, but somehow I felt the possibility of it now, as lovely and elusive as a poem”), the contrast in personalities between her and her sister.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

The friction between mother and daughter on the trip is very subtly conveyed, particularly in the way the daughter feels conflicted. On the one hand, she wants her mother to go with her to various places of interest in the city. However, she is also aware of her mother’s age and its limitations, and waning levels of interest as compared to hers – facts that the daughter chooses not to acknowledge.

On their various museum trips, the daughter is enthralled by some of the artworks that they see and they move her in a way that she can’t quite fathom, but she fails to communicate the essence of some of those artworks to her mother. The mother, meanwhile, tags along with her everywhere but it becomes apparent that she is not as vested in art as her daughter is. Indeed, the daughter is forced to accept that the one place where she sees her mother at her happiest is at a gift shop in the underground train station. Various items of clothing and the prospect of buying gifts for her family and friends animate her in a way that the carefully planned sightseeing excursions do not.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. For instance, during a visit to Laurie’s father’s house, she is struck by his artistic skill, of his ability to pick out the small details of the world that many others would have missed.

The elusiveness of the novella is also palpable in the details we are privy to. For instance, through the mother and daughter’s conversations and reflections, we get some sort of a feel for the family, their memories of certain periods and moments in their life, and yet there are many things we don’t know – basic, essential things such as their names and where they currently reside.

Cold Enough for Snow, then, is a novella that captures the essence of solitude and quiet reflection. An introspective air wafts through the book, offering a glimpse into the narrator’s inner world that no one has access to but herself. It’s a meditation on how each of us has our own inner world that only we are aware of, outside the reach of others. During a meal shared with her mother and sister, our narrator thinks back to the evenings spent in contemplation at her lecturer’s home where she “sat in decadent solitude, with her single glass of wine each night, thinking over the day.” She does not share this moment with her mother and she also knows that various aspects of her mother’s life and her innermost thoughts remain a closed door to her. For instance, when the mother was at an age her daughter is now, she had already made a new life for herself in a new country. The daughter admits that she can’t possibly imagine her mother’s first few months in the new country, the struggles of adapting to a different way of life.

Cold Enough for Snow is an ode to the way we see and appreciate art. In the earlier pages, here are the thoughts that flit though the daughter’s mind while gazing at some of the museum pieces, particularly fabrics…

Their patterns were at once primitive and graceful, and as beautiful as the garments in a folktale. Looking at the translucency of the overlapping dyes reminded me of looking upwards through a canopy of leaves. They reminded me of the seasons and, in their bare, visible threads, of something lovely and honest that had now been forgotten, a thing we could only look at but no longer live. I felt at the same time mesmerised by their beauty and saddened at this vague thought. 

And the book is also evocative when conveying the simple pleasures of life. Here is the narrator highlighting the exquisite joy of her solitary stay at her lecturer’s home…

Sometimes, I poured myself a glass of wine and dimmed the lights, or else played a record, turning the volume up so that the music filled the whole house. If it was warm, I opened the windows and on those nights the scent of the lilacs that grew near the fence would drift in from the garden, blending with the music and with my simple, solitary meal.

Cold Enough for Snow reverberates with sensory images – the smell of the steam, the tea and the rain; dreamy vistas (“Through the sheets of rain, the landscape looked almost like a screen painting that we had seen in one of the old houses”), the beauty of the Impressionist paintings which “contained a world unto itself, of cities and ports, of mornings and evenings, of trees and paths and gardens and ever-changing light.”

Each showed the world not as it was but some version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams, which were, like always, better than reality and thus unendingly fascinating.

Light shimmers on the pages (“Light came down in shafts through the dirtied windows, and the motes stirred in them, like the air from a newly threshed harvest of wheat that Chekhov had once written about in one of his stories.”), and the book is suffused with splashes of blue – the glaze of the ceramic bowls which “looked like liquid, like a blue pond”, the dark museum room which “seemed to be a deep, impenetrable blue, like the blue of an evening”, the daughter’s scarf “as blue as the cobalt of Delft tableware.”

The language is spare and yet so expressive while describing objects of art, the beauty of nature and the characters’ state of mind. When mother and daughter take a route along the canal, the “water gave a shaking, delicate impression of the world above.” On a walking trail, “the path was like a corridor, surrounded by trees on either side, tall and spirit-like, swaying around me as if to a sound I could not hear.”

Finally, there’s a passage in the book when the daughter is reminiscing about her time as a waitress at an elegant Chinese restaurant, its otherworldly aura (“dim, carefully lit rooms and dark polished floors”), and its sense of weight and precision, “as if to create a floating world.” This fleeting mention of the restaurant’s atmosphere particularly reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, where he wonderfully captures Japan’s sensual world of nightlife – the nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment and drink. On hindsight, there is something about the quietness of this novella that has shades of Ishiguro in it.

I read Cold Enough for Snow in the days after my father died, a difficult time when I could not concentrate on anything. This novel was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency – Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather is a wonderful book with a range of compositions on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.

In the ‘Artists’ Lives’ section (easily my favourite), Laing covers a broad and varied spectrum of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Sargy Mann, David Wojnarowicz and so on; artists “who lived in societies that starved them of sustenance or otherwise attempted to curtail and punish their erotic and intellectual lives” but who made work “that bubbles with generosity, amusement, innovation and creative rage.” While each essay is profoundly fascinating and illuminating, my favourites are the ones on Agnes Martin, Joseph Cornell and Georgia O’Keeffe.

For instance, Laing draws parallels between Martin’s minimalist paintings (a grid: a set of horizontal and vertical lines drawn with a ruler and pencil on canvases six feet high and six feet wide) and her difficult, spartan upbringing punctuated by her mother’s cruel silence and emotional abuse. Martin’s paintings, however, are not meant to convey any of this darkness. Laing states that what “Martin wanted to catch in her rigorous nets was not material existence, the earth and its myriad forms, but rather the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself.”

On Joseph Cornell’s artwork, Laing discusses how inspired by Houdini’s performances, Cornell made obsessive, ingenious versions of the same story – “a multitude of found objects representing expansiveness and flight, penned inside glass-fronted cases.”  Not restricted to his art alone, this conflict seeped into his personal life as well. More specifically, Laing elucidates how “this tension between freedom and constriction ran right through Cornell’s own life.” He was a pioneer of assemblage art, where “he roved freely through the fields of the mind while inhabiting a personal life of extremely narrow limits.” Indeed, he lived with his mother and disabled younger brother in their mother’s house in Queens, but he never married or travelled or made any attempts to radically alter his circumstances.

Meanwhile, artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat andDavid Wojnarowicz created art as a medium of resistance, to express and protest against the gross injustices against humanity – rampant racism and AIDS-phobia. Here is Laing on Basquiat…

Over and over, he redrafted America’s history, the ongoing brutalizing dynamic of racism and its long legacies. He painted slave auctions and lynchings, cartoon-style, livid, and he also made scathing accounts of what we might now call everyday racism.  

Anti-clockwise (from top Left to Right) – Artworks by Georgia O’ Keeffe, Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joseph Cornell

Wojnarowicz tragically died of Aids-related complications in 1992 and Laing brings to the fore how he was subject to an enforced silencing, first by family and then the society he inhabited. People with AIDS were unjustly ostracized at the time, there were no attempts made to understand the implications of the disease, to educate the masses, to display kindness rather than wield the rod of exclusion. But Wojnarowicz still found novel ways to express himself, to counter untruths.

Not long before he died, he made a photograph in the desert of his own face, eyes closed, teeth bared, almost buried beneath the dirt, an image of defiance in the face of extinction. If silence equals death, he taught us, then art equal language equals life.  

This particular image, fitfully, graces the cover of Funny Weather.

The ‘Frieze Columns’ contain pieces Laing mostly wrote in the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 – those paranoid years when the bombardment of current news was extreme, in many ways fuelled by Trump and his terrible Presidency. With Twitter dominating the roost when it came to continuous news and dissemination of (mis)information, the effect that it produced was one of paranoia, fear and anxiety, the perception that the world was moving too fast. At such times Laing took solace in gardening, a pastime “that situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media.” Laing also covers a variety of topics finding original ways to make interesting connections to art with political leanings – lip sewing as a form of protest, attitudes towards immigrants, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books, Virginia Woolf’s final novel ‘Between the Acts’, the Grenfell Tower fire and so on.

Subsequently, Laing presents us with essays on Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith followed by a terrific perspective on Queer British Art and the Conceptual Art movement.

In the ‘Essays’ section, Laing begins with a piece on a period in her youth when she became deeply involved in protests as an environmental activist and even attempted to live in the wild to lose herself, an endeavor that ultimately failed because she missed human connection. Then she proceeds to the topic on women writers and alcohol – how the reasons that motivated male authors to drink were in some ways similar to what fuelled women writers, but also very different. Alcoholic women authors also faced the brunt of social stigma; women drinking was a phenomena that society found hard to digest. While unhappiness mostly fanned the urge to drink for both genders, women especially had to grapple with the additional challenge of being perceived as inferior beings by a patriarchal society.

Writers such as Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, and Jean Rhys came from terrible backgrounds marked by abuse, crippling insecurity and anxiety, and explain why they took to the bottle. But despite massive drinking sessions, these writers managed to produce brilliant books that are works of art in themselves – Highsmith’s Ripley books about an immoral murderer and the consummate ease with which he switches identities are fabulous as are Jean Rhys’ four slim lucid novels about “alienated rootless women adrift among the demi-monde of London and Paris.” The latter is particularly exemplified in Sasha, the doomed protagonist of Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight.

Jean Rhys’ quintessential quartet of books…

We then come to the part titled ‘Reading’, the two essays that most resonated were the ones on Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, mostly because I had read and loved these books. Laing writes astutely about what makes Deborah Levy’s ‘Living Autobiography’ series, particularly The Cost of Living so striking…

She’s the most delicious narrator. The post-divorce landscape is well trodden by memoirists, and what makes Levy remarkable, beyond the endless pleasure of her sentences, is her resourcefulness and wit. She’s ingenious, practical and dryly amused, somehow outside herself enough to find the grim, telling humour in almost any situation. Her experience is interesting to her largely for what it reveals about society, rather than the other way round.

On Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Laing manages to convey the essence of what makes Rooney’s writing so essential, how she excels at portraying millennial relationships, the uncertainty evident in communicating their feelings.

What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather.   

Just like the artists’ lives that Laing paints and the myriad facets of art that she depicts, Funny Weather itself is artfully penned – intelligent, engrossing, erudite in an engaging manner.

Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times. It is also argued that art can invoke empathy. Is this true? This is where Laing makes a very important point encapsulated in this paragraph from her introductory piece:

Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.