The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

I quite like to read fiction by Canadian authors especially if it is based in places where I have visited or would like to visit. A lot of the action in Jane Urquhart’s book is set on the shores of Lake Superior, a place that I have passed mainly in a blur on our way from Calgary to Ottawa at the start of the pandemic and one that I am hoping to familiarise myself with in more depth when we, hopefully, go camping there in the summer. Actually, I have looked over its vista at the Terry Fox memorial, a stop off on our speedy journey east and not to be missed.

And so, The Underpainter is a novel set in Canada which deals with Austin Fraser, an American painter who is based in New York but visits Lake Superior every summer to paint and spends it with his lover and muse, Sara. Actually, “muse” is far too passionate a word with which to describe Austin’s view of Sara as it suggests a man whose passion for the figure before him rules his every move and desire and this is just not the case. I have never read a fictional book where an artist and a talented one at that is the most dispassionate, imperceptive and insentient being in it. And so, Sara is his subject, not his muse.

As well as Sara, Austin also visits with George, a young man who owns a china shop directly next door to his own father’s grocery store; George paints china with scenes that the tourists will like, who take them away as souvenirs. When Austin first meets George, George is in love with Vivian, an attractive flirt who holds George with her allure, despite not giving him much attention. Vivian leaves and George goes to war and it appears that their relationship does not develop further. Then George meets Augusta, a nurse who has shared the trauma of the war and who becomes George’s life partner, them providing each other with nurture and companionship through their joint experience.

Austin tells us all this through his first person narrative and I have likened it in my Reedsy review to bobbing along in the sea on a calm day with a pool noodle (flotation device) as, in the novel, you have nothing too taxing in terms of what happens and the plot is not driving you forward. It is pleasant to read and there is no reason to stop but nothing is really urging you on. It is really a character study, Austin being the main person under scrutiny through his remembrances and his perceptions of the people around him.

Blimey though, but he is a cold fish.

I think that Urquhart does provide hints to his nature. He loses his mother at a relatively young age and he talks about her in terms of her difference to him, describing her as being more like Rockwell Kent, another artist (who existed) who he meets while he is studying. His father’s reaction to his mother’s death is muted in that his father becomes more distant except for one particularly emotional instant where his father lays down with Austin and cries passionately. Austin has been shaped by these things: from my reading,I feel he is reminded of his mother if he acts like her and this will hurt him; he reacts to his father’s distance by becoming distant himself; and he was embarrassed and awkward at his father’s show of emotion and so will not act that way.

He is stone.

These personality traits come through in his relationships with people but in particular, Sara. The book begins with two important correspondences: the first which is sent by Austin to Sara, telling her to meet him at a hotel from the past and the second from Sara to Austin where she has passed and left her cabin to him in her will in the present.

The importance of the first correspondence, a telegram becomes more in focus towards the end of the book and sheds light on Austin’s reaction to having the cabin left to him by Sara as it provokes a less than happy reaction. There is reference made to a china cabinet too that Austin has in his cold white barn of a house, an obvious link to George which also gains importance towards to the end of the book.

Austin talks a lot about Sara but we never really get to know her as a character in her own right. We learn about her history in that her father was a miner from Cornwall who immigrated and mined silver from beneath Lake Superior. Austin never discusses her with warmth nor relates detailed conversations; he tells us about times where he has treated her badly or where she has expressed dislike but you get a sense that she is more like an object to him sexually and emotionally and a subject only, artistically.

Austin shows more warmth in his friendship with George but even this is questionable due to one very pointed encounter towards the end of the book, where George, usually placid, challenges Austin. Austin is not a likeable narrator at all although, as a narrator, he is dependable; his reserve in his retelling of events which would elicit high emotion in others means that his recount seems factual.

There is one instance where he does something which would hint that he has some grade of feeling which is when he painstakingly reconstructs George’s china collection when it becomes broken. But apart from that, Austin’s detachment from people and, really, his art is palpable.

I have given the book more thought since I finished it and started writing this review than I probably have done many of the others I have read this year and I am starting to regret the three star rating that I have given it on other sites as it is thought-provoking. It is literary and so, it is not a mere storytelling exercise.

For example, the references to mining are made throughout especially in light of Sara’s father being one and Austin’s father financing the process. This says a lot about the different worlds that they inhabit, firstly in terms of social station and money, but also, metaphorically in terms of depth. By this, there is a suggestion that Sara and her father are not frightened of depth whereas Austin and his father would prefer to inhabit the surface and benefit superficially without having to work at something or indeed risk much.

Urquhart has created a text which is multilayered and works metaphorically as well as literally and this is reflected in the title she gives to it too. Austin refers in the novel to the ghost figures which are sometimes visible in painting where artists have tried to paint over them to exclude them but by some happening, they remain; barely perhaps but to the discerning observer they can be seen. Austin is the underpainter: he is the artist who wants to avoid these emergences by the application of layer upon layer of paint so that only what he wants to be seen in his art is seen. Of course, the metaphor here is that Austin is hidden under these layers; that he does not want to be seen, explored, exposed.

I like books that get you thinking. This book reminded me of poetry, not necessarily in its language but in the way that it has been presented to you for your perusal and investigation. It could be read as a story but if you examine Austin and what he describes closely, there is much more to be found in the book, under its layers, to be seen, explored, exposed.

3 thoughts on “The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

  1. It sounds like a good character study, but I’m not sure I would enjoy reading about someone who is cold as a fish. I agree about location. It always brings an extra dimension to a book, when you are familiar with the location and can imagine what it looks like, when the author mentions specific places.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, you might. His narrative is objective maybe more than cold. He’s not cruel, just views things with a detachment, a bit like an artist viewing his subject perhaps? I don’t know. Like I said in my review, it’s made me think more now I’ve finished it than when I was reading it.
      And yes, it’s great to have a bit of geographical background knowledge. I love that too.

      Liked by 1 person

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