I’m always pleased when a book’s title and cover suit it as well as Chloë Ashby’s do for Wet Paint. Both were what made me put up my hand for a proof, intrigued by that title, which turns out to be a neat metaphor, and the jacket which suits its narrator perfectly. Ashby’s debut is about a twenty-six-year-old woman who has encased herself in a defensive shell against the loss of, first, her mother, then her dearest friend.
‘”I’m fine,” I say, rearranging my face into a smile the way Karina refolds her clothes after I iron them
Eve is sacked from her waitressing job after slapping the face of a regular who’s stuck his hand up her skirt yet again. It’s been a bad day, not least because her friend Grace’s parents have been lunching at the restaurant, the first time she’s seen them since the funeral six years ago. Grace and she were at Oxford together, inseparable from the first day. Eve’s mother left just before her fifth birthday, her father seemingly incapable of looking after his daughter or himself. Eve lives in Bill and Karina’s flat at a reduced rent in exchange for a day’s cleaning, juggling a series of jobs while visiting the Courtauld on a weekly basis to commune with the barmaid from Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergères’. After she’s sacked, she takes on a few hours as a life model for a drawing class where she meets Annie, keen for her to fit in some babysitting of the daughter that’s the same age Eve was when her mother left. Then Max, the friend who wants to be something more, suggests some bar work. Eve stumbles on, snooping in Bill and Karina’s room when they’re away, thinking daily of Grace, a litany of self-blame in her head, until her shell cracks under yet more pressure and a crisis ensues which can’t be ignored.
I may as well be a bowl of softening fruit or a chopped block of wood. A half-filled vase of flowers or a pile of dusty books. They can rub me out with a few flicks of the wrist. Here one minute, gone the next
Ashby’s novel begins with a therapist’s session so that we know from the start that something has gone badly wrong for Eve who tells us her own story in the sardonic voice she’s adopted to hide her misery fooling no one. Details of Eve’s childhood are gradually revealed, the neglect and unhappiness of being without a mother or a functioning father, and the desperate unhappiness of Grace’s death for which she blames herself. She’s been abandoned, not once but twice so it seems sensible to push everyone away, including the lovely Max, in case it happens again. She’s entirely convincing, quite heartrendingly so at times, and darkly funny. Ashby ends Eve’s story on a welcome note neatly turning her title’s metaphor for avoidance into a symbol of hope. An absorbing and enjoyable novel, the second I’ve read recently published under Trapeze, an imprint new to me – the first, if you’re wondering, was Neel Patel’s Tell Me How to Be. Clearly, a list to keep an eye on.
Trapeze: London 9781398702981 336 pages Hardback