Book Review: Portrait of The Artist’s Wife, by Barbara Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_portrait_of_the_artists_wife.jpgVUP has a treat for all lovers of Barbara Anderson’s books – new editions of her books Girls High and Portrait of the Artist’s Wife have been published this year.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife was originally published 27 years ago, in 1992. It has aged well. The themes she explores – the nature of marriage, the place of women in marriage and society, the bone-crunching work of raising children, the rhythms of rural life, the passing of generations – resonate as well in 2019 as they did in 1992.

The novel spans nearly five decades of the life of Sarah Tandy, a talented painter who finds herself married to her childhood friend and the love of her life, Jack Macalister. Jack is an archetypal tortured novelist, a world-class philanderer, and a handy boozer as well. Sarah suffers, silently, for decades as Jack’s needs and wants eclipse all of her own.

Anderson shines a spotlight on the place of women in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s and to a large extent the 1980s and at the end of this book I had to ask myself, things are better now but are things better enough? It would be interesting to see what the fictional Sarah would make of then gender politics of 2019. Sarah had to live with people questioning whether she could continue to paint as a mother – echoes of our own Prime Minister’s experience as she entered motherhood.

The novel follows Sarah through the birth of children, heartbreak and bereavement, the loss of family and friends, betrayals and triumphs. Anderson paints a portrait of Sarah as fully-fledged flawed and brilliant human being – the injustice, the joy, the grief and the shame feel as real as if it were happening to a best friend.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, the Goodman Fielder Wattie 1992 Book of the Year, is a delightful read. I found myself re-reading passages several times to savour the artful descriptions and the sharp observations.

Anderson has the ability to write about things in a way that make you think about them differently, look at them differently, and appreciate them so much more. Her microscopic attention to detail doesn’t overwhelm, rather it delivers a gift of insight with every description. Describing a cantankerous caretaker she writes that ‘enraged quivering thatches of hair leapt about his forehead and set single spies across the bridge of his nose.’ [p. 223]

When Sarah is having an argument with Jack, who always found the words when she could not, Anderson describes her plight: ‘Words were no use to her, as always they skidded away from what she wished to say, immiscible as petrol scum on puddles.’ [p. 338]

Unlike Sarah, Anderson’s words have considerable staying power, and well deserve their re-publication.

Reviewed by Emma Marr

Portrait of The Artist’s Wife
by Barbara Anderson
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562121

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