July 10, 2012

Book: The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:04 am

This is the second book of Jane Urquhart reviewed in this blog.  I did not much like the earlier book reviewed here, Changing Heaven.

This, in my view, is a far better book.  It has an interesting story.  The tale is narrated by an old painter, Austin Fraser, whose memories of the past are triggered by the death of Sara Pengelly, who leaves all she owns to him upon his death. The place he inherits is on the shores of Lake Superior, a place he has not visited in about five years, when he broke off a fifteen year old relationship with her and walked away.

He remembers his childhood, his father’s interest in making money and his success in becoming rich. His father wanted Austin to follow in his footsteps and was bitterly disappointed when Austin chose to study art and become a painter.  Austin lived in New York and was taught by Robert Henri, who taught him that art is not in the object being painted itself but in the perception of the artist of the art being painted.

He starts out as a landscape painter, and befriends Rockwell Kent, who becomes a famous painter.

When he follows his dad to Davenport in Canada, he meets George Kearns, a shy, retiring boy who becomes close to him due to a shared interest in art and painting. George looks after a china shop belonging to his dad and paints designs on the china cups and other utensils, in addition to importing stuff from other countries to sell in Davenport on the shores of Lake Superior. He falls in love with Vivian and is devastated when she leaves town.

He then goes to Port Arthur, again following his father’s mining interests, and there meets Sara, a young, blond woman, who becomes a subject for his painting and his mistress. The way he mistreats this woman, who invited him into her life, home and unreservedly shared everything is heartbreaking to read. He is with her every summer and leaves in winter, and is furious and immensely insulting when she decides to visit him in New York one year. He humiliates her into going back to Canada and then visits her the next summer as though nothing has happened. And is furious that she has not told him everything about herself – the fact that a fox visits her in winter, for instance.

Many years later, as a famous painter, and a lone man, he meets George Kern’s love, Augusta Moffat, a young Canadian nurse who met George in the hospital when he returned wounded from the Second World War. She is shell shocked when her hospital is bombed one day and kills her best friend. She is admitted into a mental asylum back in Davenport when George meets her, mends her, and then they become lovers.

When Vivian returns as a famous actor many years later, Austin, the narrator, takes her to visit George, on her insistence, without realizing the tragedy that would unleash in George and Augusta’s lives. He cannot recover from the sinister results of that action, and is a broken man.

The reason the book is called Underpainter is that Austin develops his own style of painting during his path to fame. He paints a scenery and covers it up deliberately, leaving traces of these showing through, discernable only to a keen eye, and paints `the real‘ painting over these. These underpainting portions are discovered and are critically acclaimed by admirers, later.

The book is interesting. The coldness of the narration makes the skin crawl with revulsion in places.

Not one of those racy, can’t-put-it-down kind of books: the story develops slowly and reaches its denouement in its own pace. However, the narration is excellent, the English is classy and the read leaves one brooding about the rich characters after you have finally put down the book.

I would say it deserves a 7/10

— Krishna


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