Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethell

Reviewed by Victoria

zillahThere are some novels that are all about the language, and Girl in Profile is one of them. How much you enjoy it will depend to a certain extent on how much you love the lyrical-poetic mode of writing, but given that I’m not the biggest fan of needlepoint prose and I still ended up liking and admiring Girl in Profile very much indeed, I think this novel would act like catnip on prose fanatics. It’s certainly a book that gets under your skin and leaves you with unexpected memories of it that pop up again long after the reading is over.

Three voices intertwine in the novel. The first belongs to Gwen John, sister of Augustus John, lover of Rodin, a woman who will become (eventually, very eventually) a recognised artist in her own right. The narrative drops in on her life at the start of the twentieth century and the end of her affair with Rodin, while she suffers and waits and tries to distract herself with painting. The second belongs to Moth, a young wife and mother in present-day Swansea, hostage to the contemporary demands of motherhood but longing to escape domesticity through an affair with Adam, her son’s pottery teacher. The third belongs to Elizabeth, a woman suffering from early onset dementia, living in a care home in Tenby who starts a correspondence with an American man on death row that gives her an unusual space to redefine herself. In an interview at the end of the novel, Zillah Bethell described how the novel ‘is a succession of moments – like pictures. I wanted the writing to be like painting, sometimes glancing, sometimes going in deep…’ and it’s a fair description. Each woman has titanic struggles with her own emotions, with the need for love and with the reality of abandonment. But the structure of brief chapters keeps the climate of the novel essentially light and mercurial, displaying a wide and dazzling array of different moods, sensations, feelings and perceptions.

And the writing has some exquisite moments. Here is Gwen John (my favourite of the voices) describing the act of painting a life model as a form of violation:

She is pale and thin as a fairy grown by the light of fireflies. She was meant for the shadows. I lengthen her limbs, deepen her, take her to extremes. Her left hand curls in mild protest. I tauten a sinew in her neck like tuning a violin string. She flinches. I show the whites of her heavy, lidded eyes, force her to look at me directly as I look at her. Not a particle of her body escapes my gaze, my touch.

And here is the more world-weary and witty voice of Moth, contemplating a new mother at the library drop-in group, who Moth suspects is far too cheerful and self-aware to have taken on the task of full-time parenting:

My suspicions are confirmed when we stop for a tea break and she asks for a cup of hot water, no biscuit. Gracie’s grandad and I exchange a look of pure bafflement. What kind of creation is this? He’s bereft even of gardening tips. We’ve been up since the bum crack of dawn. We accept anything we’re offered – antiseptic throat lozenge, chewing gum, cream cracker. Say the words ‘chicken casserole with dumplings’ and a full-time parent’s liable to wet themselves.

And Elizabeth, contemplating the end of her life:

Just me in my room then. Just me in my room and the objects on my shelf. Is that what it all comes down to in the end? The nouns on our shelf. The small items left and the feelings we attach to them. That dandelion paperweight we found on honeymoon… The snow globe I shake on the perfect world of my children: the science awards, the gym competitions, the piano recitals. The wings I stitched, the wings that flew. Out of reach. The horseshoe we painted silver and hung on the garden gate. It reminds me of the paths I didn’t take, the love I didn’t make.

There’s much to admire in this novel, most of it bound up in the beauty of the writing. But there are a few flaws. Initially, all three characters sound the same and it takes a little while for them to become thoroughly distinguished in their voices. Like all poetic writing, the narrative hovers in place on the borderline of the gnomic, but there are so many beautiful phrases, so many charming or delicate insights that the odd obscurity can easily be forgiven. More intriguingly problematic in some ways is the perspective taken on women’s lives, as Bethell chooses to contemplate her characters at times when they are uncomfortably dependent – Gwen and Moth through the self-sacrifice that occurs in love, Elizabeth because of the self-sacrifice that has not occurred in those that love her. They are all unhappy women, dissatisfied, lonely, resentful, though trying to do the best they can with what they have. Elizabeth’s correspondence with her death row prisoner is a fascinating part of the novel, but I’m not sure ultimately what it says about their lives or their situations. But I stress that these are all quibbles or knotty points of uncertainty that would be interesting to discuss. What makes this book really worth reading is its literary ambitions, which are legion, and the fact that it attains so many of them is highly impressive. Definitely a writer to watch.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Zillah Bethell, Girl in Profile (Honno Press, April 2016) 978-1909983410, 208 pp., paperback original.

BUY Girl in Profile from the Book Depository.

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