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Lloyd Jones: Paint Your Wife
Another fine work from Jones which, for some reason, has not yet appeared in the US or the UK. It is set in a somewhat backwater New Zealand town, where there had been a paint factory but which was sold and then closed, leaving little employment. But, chronologically (though not in the novel), the story starts in the war, when the men go off to war. Alma is left behind. Alma had once been married and he and his young, pregnant wife had set off on a train journey to a new life. As the train crossed a bridge, a mudslide hit the train. Alma’s wife was killed and Alma badly hurt and no longer able to speak. The therapy to help him to recover was painting and he learned to become a painter and, later, a paint designer at the factory. When the men went away to war, Alma, who was around thirty, was the only youngish man left in the town and was often called on to help the women, particularly with getting rid of the epidemic of rats. He refused to accept money in payment and but did ask to paint portraits of the women. He built up a large collection of portraits but above all he painted Alice, mother of the narrator, now grown up and mayor of the town and owner of the local second-hand store.
Jones cleverly tells the tale of Alma but also of the town as it now is, with its economic depression and the attempts to revitalise the economy, including the spectacular fiasco of the cruise ship visit. But it is Alma, past and present, who interests us. It is never clear why he paints the women, except, of course, to recapture the image of the loss of his wife. There is never anything really sexual involved, even when he finally paints Alice in the nude, as he never tries anything with the women and never has another wife or girlfriend after the death of his wife. But his painting has a huge effect on the town. When the men return from the war, they are bemused. Alice’s husband, George, is particularly bemused, especially when he finds one of the paintings (not nude) of his wife, in her underwear drawer. In front of George and Alice’s house is a hill which blocks the view to the sea. Alice had always complained about it and now, finding the painting, George is determined to do something for Alice, to prove his love, and what he does is, on his own, to dig the hill away. It doesn’t work. Alice has a brief fling with one man, who then moves on, then a fling with another man, before finding that she is pregnant with the first man. She gets the first man back and the child they have is the narrator but the father does not stay long and moves out. (The narrator, while an adolescent, tracks him down to a brothel.) But George has also found someone else and Alice is left with her memories and the paintings.
The paintings have another effect, as it is the paintings that help revitalise both the town’s economy and its morale, in more ways than one. But though it is Alma and the paintings that are the focus of the novel, Jones paints an incredibly rich portrait of the various denizens of the town, from the itinerant Dean who takes the rap for theft from their place of work for Violet and then both turn up in the town, with two babies and destitute, to the couple that seek to move to Australia for a better life, sell everything to the narrator’s store, only to not get the job they were seeking and have to return, concerned only that their bed has not been sold (it has – to Dean). Jones shows considerable sympathy to these ordinary people in an ordinary town but who each have their special personality and who each make up the community. But why this has not been published, as yet, in the UK or US, is beyond me.
First published 2004 by Penguin