I read this novel last year as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, but it was such a beautiful piece of work that I needed to write about it (and ran out of time last year). I’d randomly found the title written in my notebook, and I think it was recommended to me by a writing friend from my Masters course when we lunched in Sydney a few months back.
Kristel Thornell’s Night Street is the fictionalised story of artist Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), a Modernist artist who was overlooked until the 1960s, when Rosalind Hollinrake, searching for the identity of an artist named C. Beckett, eventually found 1200 of her canvases rotting in a shed in the Melbourne countryside.
Beckett never married, but took care of her parents in the Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris. Her father wouldn’t allow her a studio in their house, so she built herself a painting trolley which she took out in all weather. Her work was part of a movement known as Tonalism, which emphasised atmosphere and was created through quick painting that captured areas of light and dark.
What I loved most about this novel was its language. Describing Clarice’s impression of her teacher Meldrum’s work The three trees, Thornell writes:
When your mind entered its skilful depth, you were in the pungent bush, fixing on it a vigilant, unwavering gaze. You smelled a little smoke from a camp, your own damp human heat and, engulfing it all, the absolutely crispness of peppery, lemoney, honeyed plant life; you bathed in bush light. (109).
This passage shows how the mind, spurred by art, can go beyond the confines of a life and reach a place that is illuminated. Thornell is careful to show how, while Beckett’s days might have appeared cramped by the need to take care of her ailing parents (which limited the hours in which she could work), it was, for her, inspiring and far-reaching. This transformation of that which is overlooked is illustrated in Beckett’s subject matter, which was often of vistas that others thought were ordinary:
She had never fathomed nor respected the notion of ‘poor’ weather. Poor? Whereas most people saw something dismal, Clarice revelled in the quiet sumptuosity, or moody turbulence of greys. In general, grey was so little appreciated – but what of the curiously luminescent bark of gum trees, the ocean turned to mercury by the moon, the simple reflective wonder of a wet road? (34)
Similarly, the life of a spinster is assumed by Clarice’s mother to be negative, but as a child, Clarice doesn’t notice anything remiss about her unmarried art teacher: ‘Clarice was shocked by Mum’s superior tone, Henrietta’s Poor thing’ (21). Rather, Clarice sees ‘nothing unlucky in her [teacher’s] appearance, certainly not in her dignified hands that were perfumed from an orange. Her beauty was on account of her hair – that was somehow the least of it – but of there being nothing extra to her. She was gentle and stark, like silence’ (21). The two impressions pave the way for the perennial question faced by women artists: marriage, or art? It was impossible to combine the two then, and even now, I think, it’s still difficult, especially if you throw a baby or two into the equation.
Clarice has proposals, but her suitors don’t surpass the ardour she has for her work. During one such proposition, she is distracted by the sunset, ‘the saffron cloud formation’ behind her supplicant, and ‘[t]he changing light made her think of getting down to the beach’ (24) where she paints. On another occasion, a man she might have married follows her to the shore to watch her and this ‘was threatening the self-absorption that she needed; that time must remain pristine’ (33).
This is not to say that she doesn’t fall in love – she does, drastically so, with a man who has a wife and a child. While on a camping and painting trip together, they strip off in the sun so that ‘[t]heir skin was roasting and this might have been true freedom, nakedness against a backdrop of breaking waves’ (125). Just as they combust, so too does the affair, but before its ending she sees her lover ‘unstitched … It seemed that in love, if you were fearless enough, you could admit you were coming apart – you could quite come apart’ (125). To her parents and much of the society around her, Clarice seems muted, but to the readers of this text, her emotional life is ablaze.
I think I liked the work so much because I could identify with Clarice and her motivations: her assertion to another suitor that ‘I don’t paint in my spare time. When I’m not painting, that is my spare time’ (41); her rich visual and emotional lives; her unconventionality, and her constrained passion that ‘was always there, thrumming along with other pulses that threaded invisibly through life’ (65). It’s a beautiful book propelled by a quiet, internal drama, and very deserving of its Vogel win in 2009.
Book details: Thornell, Kristel. Night Street. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2010.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council/Bolinda ebook Library.
This is my 1st review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.