Nightshade by Annalena McAfee review – portrait of the artist as a troubled woman

The drama of creation and the expert rendering of the artistic process enhance the story of a woman’s struggle

This story of high drama and tortured creativity in the art world opens in a decidedly muted fashion. Eve Laing, once the muse to a celebrated portrait painter, is at the height of her career as an artist, and is watching life as she knows it unravel. Nightshade follows her on one nocturnal walk from her former marital home in a privileged corner of west London to her studio in a deprived area of east London. As she walks, she muses on a past whose more interesting elements are subsumed by fairly standard life events. So far, so understated.

The “show reel of memories” forms a large part of a novel tracing Eve’s often predictable history, from student days in London to life as a young artist in New York. Her lover, the notorious Florian Kiš, immortalises her in his portrait Girl with a Flower, and yet she is obliged to hide in the bathroom listening to his other sexual conquests. Eventually, Eve shakes him off to pursue her own vision; the work that makes her name is Underground Florilegium, a tube map featuring flowers in place of stations.

One of her New York room-mates is a performance artist named Wanda Wilson, a sort of British Marina Abramović, whose “masochistic enactments” involve her own wounds, secretions and suppurating ego. While Eve’s work is often dismissed as mimesis or decoration – she is called “the Laura Ashley of the art world” – Wanda becomes a global celebrity, and, to Eve’s mind, a fraud. Eve’s jealousy infects her entire career as critics insist, she says, on “belittling her while canonising the megalomaniac mediocrity Wanda”. Marriage and motherhood follow; Eve resents domesticity’s demands on her working life, and suffers in the shadow of her successful husband.

As we follow Eve through London, McAfee’s eye is so tuned to the minutiae of place, generation and milieu that little escapes her gaze. A former journalist and children’s writer, she is fabulously, uncomfortably observant, and her exhaustively researched immersion in her subjects – journalism in her first adult novel The Spoiler, Scottish history in its successor Hame – lends her work a sense of true authority.

The narrator’s grand project, the Poison Florilegium, comprises meadow flower portraits featuring deadly plants, with accompanying watercolours.
The narrator’s grand project, the Poison Florilegium, comprises meadow flower portraits featuring deadly plants, with accompanying watercolours. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

At the age of 60, the married Eve meets a 30-year-old called Luka who becomes both her lover and her assistant on the big project that obsesses her: the Poison Florilegium, Swiss meadow flower portraits subverted to feature the world’s deadliest plants, composed as a series of seven vast panels with accompanying watercolours and herbaria. There is unease as the work progresses. Is Luka a soulful tyro or “a dumb pretty boy with his eye on the main chance”?

McAfee has a tendency to structure novels as restrospectives on her protagonists’ careers, doing for Eve what she did for war correspondent Honor Tait in The Spoiler. Nightshade is somewhat top heavy, and would work as a far shorter, leaner novel: the backstories are summarised with little momentum. The novel’s action is reserved for its second half, when it suddenly accelerates from the static to the dramatic, with explosive clashes in the studio, old rivalries flaring up, and the challenges of producing a major work.

Ironically, after “told” sections whose interiority make the pace drag, it’s the scenes in which we really are watching paint dry that crackle with tension and movement. The drama of creation, of impending triumph or failure, and the expert rendering of the artistic process, all lift the novel to a new level, compounded by uncertainty about whether Luka is plotting to take over.

McAfee’s prose is lyrical yet sharp, and her descriptions of both the method and the intricately researched work itself are superbly convincing. Eve is far from a sympathetic character, viewing her only daughter as “a gluten-intolerant, humbug-tolerant liberal” and “social media virtue signaller”, but thematically, the novel fascinates. What is the cost of pursuing one’s vision, especially for a woman? How random is fame? And is a rounded life even possible for a true artist? The author achieves the hard task of portraying a different art form with conviction, and stays just the right side of satire in her rendition of art world excess.

Eventually, Eve’s infidelities hit the tabloids and Twittersphere with inevitable consequences. Luka, it turns out, is not her first beautiful boy, and as Eve’s life spirals into freefall, only one certainty remains: her determination, against so many odds, to complete the work that will be her legacy. The ending is simultaneously overdramatic and yet vastly satisfying. Patience is rewarded, and Nightshade’s questions continue to intrigue.

Joanna Briscoe’s novel The Seduction will be published by Bloomsbury in June. Nightshade is published by Harvill Secker (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.


Joanna Briscoe

The GuardianTramp

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