Right from the start of Robin Black’s powerful first novel we know that Owen, our narrator’s husband, is dead and that it was not a natural death. Refugees from urban life thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Gus and Owen live in an isolated farmhouse in which she paints and he writes, or tries to. Owen is blocked, their marriage stumbling a little as Gus becomes increasingly involved in her series of paintings based on the First World War soldiers’ obituaries unearthed during their house renovations. This is not the first time their relationship has faltered. Gus’s affair with Bill six years ago, shortly after the death of her beloved sister coupled with the news that she and Owen were unable to have children delivered a double blow, undermined its solidity but they have almost recovered. When Alison moves into the only house within sight an uncharacteristically intimate friendship grows between the two women. Into this walks Nora, the twenty-two-year-old daughter whom Alison has fiercely protected from her violent father and whose infatuation with Owen shifts the dynamics of their delicately balanced relationships.
You could be forgiven for thinking of Life Drawing as a thriller, albeit a literary one, given the nice little edge of suspense that runs through it thanks to the announcement of Owen’s death in its very first sentence setting us up to question how that will come about but although it becomes a dark, twisting novel it’s much more about relationships, both familial and otherwise, and the ways in which they shape us. As Gus unfolds her story it becomes increasingly clear that the loss of her mother when she was a toddler and of her sister several years ago are the defining events of her life. She and Owen shared a bond so deep it seemed unassailable – ‘Owen was me. I was Owen’ – and they have worked hard to rebuild it but she finds herself confiding intensely private details of her affair and its aftermath in Alison, a second betrayal. Owen’s death – and the person responsible for it – comes as a shock despite the forewarning so effectively has Black drawn us into this slightly claustrophobic world thrown off-kilter. It had me gripped, and reminded me a little of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me, a wonderfully taut novel about a relationship knocked off-balance when a third person insinuates themselves into it.