cover image The Underpainter

The Underpainter

Jane Urquhart. Viking Books, $22.95 (340pp) ISBN 978-0-670-87726-3

Justly praisedfor her three previous novels, Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and Trillium Award winner (for Away) Urquhart here offers a brilliantly imagined exploration of an artist's personality and the world in which he lives. Narrator Austin Fraser, now 83, looks back over his work and his life and acknowledges that he has used the demands of art to cloister himself from human relationships. He was born and now lives in Rochester, N.Y., but many of his seminal experiences took place in Canada: a town in Ontario, where he befriended George Kearns, the proprietor of a china shop, and tiny Silver Islet, on Lake Superior, where Sara Pengelly became his model and mistress. Readily confessing that he used their friendship and love for his own purposes while withholding any reciprocal emotion, Austin meanwhile describes the style of painting that resulted: he underpaints the canvas with real objects or people, then deliberately erases the details: the final abstracted version resembles his own etiolated existence. Two well-known artists, Robert Henri and Rockwell Kent, figure in the story, and their stringently opposed theories of art are lucidly described. In vivid contrast to Austin's sterile life, the annihilating force of WWI sweeps like a firestorm through the narrative. Austin stays safely at home, but George and beautiful nurse Augusta Moffat experience its carnage and continue to anguish long afterward. Canadian writer Urquhart's evocation of time and place--over seven decades and in three countries--shimmers with clarity. In contrast to Austin's paintings, the various narrative layers accrete to a clear and stunning vision. Such is Urquhart's mastery of language and subtlety of construction that the book carries the tension of an unresolved love story, the surprising revelation of tragic secrets, the visceral shock of war's terrible suffering and the heartbreak found in the recognition of finality and loss. Author tour. (Oct.)