Shena Mackay’s latest novel invites you to observe the Zeitgeist of 1997 addling the brains and hearts of quite a large number of Londoners. They seem an incongruous lot, but with her usual ingenuity she manages to portion out the action among them and to make them connect (not necessarily in the Forsterian sense). They tend to come in pairs locked in ideological conflict, which doesn’t have to be verbal: it can be expressed in their behaviour, their domestic arrangements, their clothes. Altogether it is a Dickensian assemblage, vivid, lively, quirky and woven into a network that stretches from Dulwich to Maida Vale, and from Tufnell Park to the art galleries in Mayfair. Every bit of the novel is either topographical or topical, or both: like Hoxton, the new cool place for artists to have their studios.
Mackay has an uncommon ability to focus on environmental details and find evocative metaphors for them. Her prose, though, tends to go what her characters would call ‘OTT’, switching from relentless parody of the latest jargon to passages of the purplest prose. ‘The cotoneaster, gemmate with red berries, had spread in a peacock’s tail over the grass’ is perhaps an unfair example, because when she notices the shrub behaving like that, the heroine, Lyris Crane, is thinking about Edith Sitwell’s unhappy childhood. Lyris is very recently widowed and herself an artist. On another occasion she hears a suspicious noise in the hall, and ‘her slippery heart hurt as it leapt. As a dark shape bulked into the studio doorway she seized a large bottle of turpentine and flung it.’ She is a plucky old girl; and anyway the bulky thing is not exactly a burglar; only her ghastly great-nephew Nat, who manages to make off with her purse at the end of a chatty visit. His parents own a flower stall and have got rich by illegal means, so minor crime comes naturally to Nat. He is a conceptual artist and has just set up a group in Hoxton, but failed to make it into the Royal Academy’s Sensation show.
Because of this rebuff, he is toying with the idea of moving on from brutalist imitations of Damien Hirst to art on the Net. Great-Aunt Lyris, on the other hand, pushing eighty and brought up a vegetarian Fabian, is a traditionalist painter. Her work sounds post-Bonnardian, and she regards art as a combination of public service and hymn to beauty. ‘My role,’ she lectures Nat, ‘is to record such things’ – rose-hips seen against a green-painted wall – ‘not only for their intrinsic beauty and for myself, but on behalf of people whose hearts are touched in precisely the same way’; and she quotes a little chunk of Walter de la Mare to reinforce her point. Lyris combines literacy, stoicism and personal austerity with charity and humour, and spreads inter-racial and inter-class tolerance. Her best friend is a school dinner lady married to a washing-machine repairman. The trouble is that it is difficult to emphasise the admirable nature of Lyris’s attitude without making her sound patronising.
The rest of the cast is divided into goodies, baddies and what you might call lost girls. Some (not all) of the baddies are converted in the course of the novel, while the lost girls are found, or rather led to find themselves. One is Candy, a pretty, warm-hearted, middle-aged woman who sits alone at a café table in Maida Vale, while her bunch of little dogs wind their leads round the chair legs. Her lover of more than twenty years has left her. He lost his seat as a Conservative MP in the last election and has decided to spend more time with his wife in the country. However, by the end of the book it looks as though she will settle down with a nice divorced bookseller called Clovis who has a shop nearby.
The other lost girl is Jacki: ‘Jackee’, as she calls herself at the start of the novel when she wears her hair in dreadlocks and wants to be taken for a Caribbean half-caste instead of the middle-class white girl with affectionate parents that she is. Her black lover jilts her just the same, and so does Nat, the next man she shacks up with. So she falls into a depression from which Lyris rescues her by taking her in and getting her to help redecorate her house and lose weight by eating less comfort food. A happy ending seems in sight for her, too: on the last page, crass Nat is seen moving towards his great-aunt’s house, a reformed character bearing the purse he stole from her at the beginning of the story. Perhaps he, too, will now paint flower pieces in vivid colours; and set up home with Jacki.
The Artist’s Widow is indefatigably up to date. It has everything: conceptual art and Conservatives with lost seats and abandoned mistresses, paedophilia, snuff movies, public relations women in suits, TV interviewers, suburban developments with integral garages and names like Jockin’s Mead and Biggs’s Coppice, Ofsted, air pollution (with special reference to nannies driving their charges to private schools while primary school children breathe in their petrol fumes), education cutbacks, young offenders committing suicide in prison, baseball caps and cloned sheep. The deaths of Diana and Dodi provide the grand finale.
They coincide with the 50th-birthday party of Clovis’s ex-wife Isobel, who lives in the country with their teenage daughter Miranda. Clovis and Candy have been asked, and they give a lift to Lyris. All the other guests have been disinvited because of the collision in the Paris underpass, but these three haven’t even heard the news. They find Miranda in tears and Isobel too: ‘How can you stand there and congratulate me?’ she sobs. ‘Wishing me a happy birthday, how could you both? Have you no feelings at all?’ Candy, too, bursts into tears, and ‘Clovis envied her her ability to express the emotions he felt but could not have articulated.’ Isobel, however, goes too far: ‘I’m so pleased that Clovis has you, Candy,’ she says. ‘We must all take great care of each other.’ She is thinking of joining a Contemplative Order as soon as Miranda is settled. Or even establishing ‘my own Order. A sort of unofficially recognised community, a band of folk dedicated to living simply, dressing perhaps in some unobtrusive uniform, going about the world helping in little ways, righting wrongs by stealth’. This is too much for Lyris: ‘Everybody seems so determined to do good lately,’ she whispers to Clovis. ‘Do you think it would be a refreshing change to meet someone avowed to doing something really bad?’ Still, even she returns home ‘drained’ with ‘her eyelids ... sore from weeping’. She has, presumably, achieved exactly the right measure of grief and compassion. You could see her as the Lady Troubridge of the emotions.
All the same, she has something in common with Olive, the embittered middle-class, middle-aged spinster baby-snatcher in Mackay’s 1992 novel Dunedin. Dunedin covers the same territory socially and geographically – a brilliantly envisaged London stretching from one end to the other of the Central, Northern and District Lines. Olive, like Lyris, is appalled by the conditions and behaviour of the age she lives in. The difference is that she looks at them with disgust, whereas Lyris does so with a mixture of pity, irony and truly righteous indignation. Both books are as moralistic as Little Lord Fauntleroy; tracts, in fact, but ironic tracts. The irony is sometimes heavy, but mostly enjoyable and funny. ‘Wise and funny’ is how the blurb describes the novel – a publisher’s cliché to put one on one’s guard. Still, it deserves to be on the syllabus for students of social anthropology.