Two Book Reviews

Baby, you can drive my car…

This is Simon Dell’s first foray into publishing fiction – he has already published on marketing – and it is already imaginative and assured writing. If science fiction is your bag then this is for you. It takes the topical issue of anxiety about Artificial Intelligence (and specifically driverless vehicles) and runs with it. The opening is intriguing, suspense is well-maintained, and the outcome unexpected and powerful. Internal credibility is excellently established and nourished. The setting is a monitoring centre where glitches in the efficiency of driverless vehicles can be repaired remotely and their occupants reassured. Dell vividly imagines a scenario where the question of ‘Who is in control?’ becomes paramount. His attention to futuristic detail is engaging and feels authentic. The style is seasoned with a very attractive dry wit. Let’s hope there will be more from Dell’s keyboard.

 

Stories, Paintings and Performances – On the Edge of Dreams and Nightmares by Michael Reidy

‘When I finish my story and you tell me yours, you will understand.’ Thus Ligeia, the female protagonist of Michael Reidy’s new novel, a beautifully layered account of the self-conscious and ambivalent relationship betweena portrait painter and an actress. Their respective arts are both concerned with trying to reach the inner truths of a character through a simulacrum of reality but a principal difference is that the one involves a private interaction between painter and sitter, whereas the other is enacted in public. What happens to the individuality of the artist who generates the art is part of the conundrum at the heart of the story.

When Ligeia Gordon, a celebrated actress, commissions a portrait from the eminent but retiring portraitist, Sir Nigel Thomas, an elaborate masque begins where the sitter moves towards a deeper rapprochement as the painter parries and checks. Sir Nigel is a precise, almost fastidious man, comfortable in his private routines, who is wary of personal intimacy since the death of his wife. He is profoundly reticent about his inner self.

Ligeia, on the other hand, seeks to insinuate herself into his life by revealing secrets about her past, including one which is devastating. This sounds relatively simple but Reidy’s treatment of the relationship is complex and nuanced. Their conversations are like a dance where the participants gaze at each other but pass behind each other shoulder to shoulder. Sir Nigel is too urbane to rebuff her but he is a past master at sidestepping: he will change the subject; meet a question with another question, or answer so obliquely that the question is lost. This is all complicated by the fact that Ligeia cannot avoid publicity whereas Sir Nigel shuns it.

And, of course, as an actress, Ligeia has many faces. For a start, her real name is Sophie Gregg and she admits that her offstage life is a pageant of role-playing too. Sir Nigel does not so much play a role as retreat into his private world and he keeps his studio scrupulously separate from his Albany apartment. I will not give away the ending but just say that it has about it the air of mingled promise and tristesse that reminded me of the revised ending of Great Expectations.

This is an allusive and erudite book. There is so much fascinating detail about the actual process of painting that one becomes convinced that Reidy must be a practitioner of the art himself. References to literature abound, especially to Poe and Wilde and indeed the epigraph to the novel includes the tenet that: ‘Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.’ This clearly applies to the actress too. Through their respective arts, inner truths are exposed.

Having said this, I must point out that Reidy’s learning is neither ponderous nor ostentatious. At times, it is almost frisky: there is a wonderful gag about Ligeia’s handwriting early on in the book which references a bawdy moment in Twelfth Night, for instance.

The novel is pleasing in many ways. Reidy does a good line in enigmatic women (cf. The Countess Comes Home) and the development of Sophie’s character is consistently intriguing. Supporting characters are deftly drawn, especially the sexually voracious Salome (Wilde again!) Reidy’s style is mature, fluent and cultivated. And finally, the novel explores the ways in which  we can baffle ourselves into not realising what we really want, much like some of Jane Austen’s heroines. Engaging and rewarding.