This is Julie Keys first published novel and it is a very accomplished debut.
Another genre-bending novel in recent Australian debuts, The Artist’s Portrait tells two women’s stories. One is Muriel Kemp, unfriendly, cranky and old who when first meeting Jane Cooper sprays her with the hose as Jane walks past her house. The second is Jane Cooper, would-be writer, single, pregnant and working as a nurse not sure of where she is heading.
I really loved delving into the lives of these two women and how they intersected. The writing treatment of dual stories from different time lines is something that I enjoy and Muriel is such a character – driven, singular and ultimately uncompromising she is an artist forging her own individual path – rising from crippling poverty insisting on painting what felt real to her regardless of the outcome. And Jane, the ultimate biographer of Muriel Kemp a woman who supposedly died in 1936. What is real? Kemp’s older paintings are ultimately worth much more when she is dead but what will happen with her most recent works if Jane can prove that they are all original Kemps.
This is a fascinating look at the history of Australia, the 1920’s and female artists who insist on taking their own place in the world and what happens when they ultimately cannot compromise their art. It reminds me of Charmaine Clift’s story, a women who had to compromise her writing to be a mother, supportive partner and how this wore her down so much that she took her own life. Muriel would have none of it, refusing to give in to society’s pressure to conform to an accepted womanly role.
This is also a murder story, an art forgery story and a story of history. And you, as the reader, also have to navigate the clues to find out who did actually die and why did Muriel need to disappear. Jane’s story is based in the early 1990’s and has the role of women in the arts changed in any way from the 1920’s to the 1990’s? Muriel tells her to get rid of the child or she will have no time to develop her writing and is harsh and to the point with this advice.
Keys shows great respect for her reader’s intelligence by just telling us enough and no more, leaving a lot to the reader to intuit between the lines.
This novel was shortlisted for the Richell Prize in 2017 as an unpublished manuscript and I am so glad Julie Keys went on to work with the publishers to finish it as it is a great contribution to the Australian literature. Definitely one to put on your To Be Read pile.