Melbourne is finally embracing autumn: grey skies, rain showers and leaves littering the street. Near perfect conditions to write a book review, especially if the book in question is Kristel Thornell’s atmospheric and Melbourne-centric Night Street, winner of The Australian/Vogel literary award in 2010.
Sometimes, art moves us to create more art. This is certainly the case with Night Street, where Thronell’s sensitive and tender prose shines a light on the life of Melbourne artist Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), a pioneer of tonal art in Australia. Night Street however is by no means a true rendering of Beckett’s life – it is just inspired by it.
The novel charts the rise and rise of Clarice as an artist. Along with her sister Louise, Clarice begins drawing lessons as young girl, a worthy hobby for a middle-class country lass. The novel then progresses to Clarice’s development as an adult artist, first studying with the National Gallery School, and later, significantly, rejecting it for the tutelage of the controversial Max Meldurm.
It is not all smooth sailing for Clarice who has a series of failed love affairs (include a mysterious character known as The Doctor) and a restricted life due to her duties in caring for her frail and elderly parents.
Despite these odds, Clarice’s work continues to be recognised by some important critics, while others dismiss her ‘tonalist’ art as too modern.
Analysis and Comment:
Certain parts of Night Street are stunning; carefully and beautifully written, reflecting the very nature of Beckett’s art. For example:
“The low sky thickened, like a white sauce reducing in a pan (p57)”
“Clarice loved her city well, comprehensively; all its plain, enticing fragments. A length of half-empty road, a long wistful shadow stretched out over it. An arrangement of telegraph poles. Somewhere offended by change, but she through it a pity to see progress as the enemy of beauty – because then, you were left with only nostalgia, having turned your back on so much that deserved your attention (p51)”
Night Street is also courageous. Thornell has taken on a lesser known figure of Australia’s 20th century art scene, and imagined a life for Clarice that is respectful, tender and realistic. Her novel captures the hard truths faced by female artists at the time (and even now) – sometimes it is hard to be taken seriously because of your gender, and other duties from the domestic sphere take up time that should be dedicated to the creative process.
However, despite its strong points, I felt there was something in Night Street that was quietly lacking. Was it that the scope of the novel was too narrow? After all, it focuses solely on Beckett’s existence, which was limited due to her circumstances. This certainly added to a lack of momentum in the novel overall.
Or is it something else, something it the way it was written? While Thronell’s floaty prose is striking and imaginative, it unfortunately veers into being distracting and excessive from time to time, particularly when describing something simple. For example:
“Tilting her head and lowering her lashes, she could almost see the shards of broken night, the glittering of their slicing edges.” (p133)
Her word choices too are sometimes unnecessarily complex:
“There was a swift exodus…the few girls screening the daring lustre in their eyes with insouciance; most of there were alternately animated and insecure.” (p8)
Finally, I feel that Night Street may have benefited from a more close proofreading or editing process (a sentiment shared by another book reviewer I follow). For example:
“…the bun loosened over the hour, fine silken tendrils making a goal break.” (p17).
Goal break? Makes me think of football (shudder!)
“Clarice went through the motions, scalding the post, spooning in plump spoonfuls of tea…” (p106)
Overall, I respected this novel and enjoyed huge parts of it immensely, and I can understand why this novel made it on the VCE English reading list for 2014. Thornell deserves respect for her creative subject choice and her unique style, however the sometimes clunky prose and pacing of the novel was distracting and made the novel hard work to read.
I think this is one I will have to re-read at a later date, in an effort to more greatly appreciate its artistry and depth.
More about Kristel Thornell:
More about the work of Clarice Beckett:
First published in 2010 by Allen and Unwin Australia.