Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Julie Keys’s book the artist’s portrait is one of the strangest books I have read in a long time.
Perhaps the best way to describe how I initially felt about this book is to take a sentence from a letter in the book. ‘Your letter of the 12th reached us a few days ago and was as good as a cryptic crossword. I could barely make head nor tail of it’ (190). However, after persevering I was able to piece together the two story lines which merged to create this novel.
The first protagonist to come to light was Muriel Kemp a young girl who became an artist – though somewhat controversial.
Although the reader is introduced to the second protagonist early in the book and knows that she is a nurse, has become pregnant after a one-night stand and that she comes across the artist on one of her walks resulting in a relationship of sorts; the reader is not informed of the name of this character until about page 100.
When these two, with a wide age gap, meet, they each seem to fulfil a need in the other. Muriel needs someone to write her biography. Jane, the main character of the second narrative realises that she is going to need to support herself and her child and, in her mind, nursing will be out of the question. She decides to write the biography. Muriel’s response – ‘Did I say biography?’… ‘You can write it as fiction for all I care.’…‘As long (as) you name me as the source’. ‘My surname is Kemp. That’s enough information for today.’ (65-66).
Jane had dropped a tape recorder and some blank tapes at Muriel’s place and had promised to give her some space. On returning she was greeted with ‘I’ve run out of tapes … need you to get me some more and another one of these machines that does the recording’. (111) Muriel was always brusque.
The book follows the lives of the two main characters and often jumps from the past to the present in the narrative within the same chapter. This I found confusing.
The story line has much to make it interesting to the reader though, especially the Muriel narrative. There are the actions of her father when she was just eleven and Muriel’s own life in Sydney’s bohemian art world in the 1920s with its jealousies and retaliations.
There was a murder of a fellow artist, after which Muriel seems to move about a lot as if wanting to hide. There was a plane crash and also a grave for Muriel Kemp but Jane is talking to her about her biography! Jane’s research reveals a paragraph of writing under the heading ‘MURIEL KEMP 1904-1936 … According to that reference Muriel Kemp was long dead but that couldn’t be right. … (Articles) described her death as being controversial’ (67).
When Jane’s Muriel Kemp died, she had left behind only half the story of her life. She narrated the beginning and Jane knew the end but the middle was missing. She had also tasked Jane to complete her writing in a specific time frame and to convince Lexie Tanner, the director of the Muriel Kemp Foundation to accept the paintings left in the house as work done by the artist of this name.
Jane’s life by comparison seems somewhat staid but her family growing up also had its tragedy and suspicions. We follow her through her mother and brother’s deaths in a road accident, her father’s re-marriage and as she comes to grip with her life now that she is pregnant. She also has an on again off again relationship with her sister. We follow her as she negotiates all the twists and turns in her attempt to piece together Muriel’s life and fulfil Muriel’s wishes
The Artist’s Portrait is the debut novel for Julie Keys and was shortlisted for The Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017. She has worked as a tutor, a registered nurse, a youth worker and a clinical trials coordinator. She is now studying a PhD in creative arts at the University of Wollongong and writing full-time.
She lives in the Illawarra region on the NSW south coast and her short stories have been published across a range of Australian journals. She says that the impetus for this book was to acknowledge ‘the creative women who came before’ her who had been ‘denied both acclaim and prestige’ and for the current and future women ‘as they continue to advocate for parity’ (290).
The artist’s portrait may be one of those books that require a second reading so that the snippets of information that arise during the first reading and seem not to fit, can be reconciled with the aspects of the life being recorded in this narrative.
$32.99; 304 pp