Review Book Club: questions and anthers

Flower power is at the heart of Annalena McAfee’s latest book. She spoke to Maggie Gruner, and joined Ian McEwan in making some self-isolation selections

Friday, 17th April 2020 — By Maggie Gruner

Annalena McAfee Ollive Grove PR image 1

Annalena McAfee. Photo: Ollive Grove PR

RESEARCH for her latest novel, Nightshade, has changed Bloomsbury author Annalena McAfee’s perception of plants.

Her eyes were opened by a course she took in botanical art at Ruskin College, Oxford.

She told Review: “I perceive plants differently now – I just looked at them before, I think. Now, it seems to me that I really see them.”

The novel could make readers view plants differently, too. It brings glorious specimens to us in a story loaded with art and sexual politics, and pulsing with rivalry, rancour and revenge.

Nightshade tells the tale of artist Eve Laing. Travelling on foot and by Tube from her former marital home in west London to her studio in the east, she reflects on a past gouged by her youthful affair with a controlling painter almost four decades her senior, who would summon her to his ramshackle house in Mornington Crescent.

He “caught her subjugation” when he portrayed her in his famous painting Girl with a Flower.

As she travels on the Underground, Eve – known for her work based on the Tube map, for which she replaced names of stations with botanical paintings – remembers the King’s Cross fire. She was saved from that disaster by an “aversion to small children”.

She should have been buying a ticket when the fire erupted in the ticket hall, but she’d cancelled a supper invitation, unable to bear the prospect of a conversation dominated by potty training and “interrupted by infant wails, broadcast over the baby monitor like a tuneless muezzin call to prayer”.

Unsurprising, considering Eve regards her own daughter as a spoiled mediocrity and her baby grandson as a caterwauling “sack of needs”.

Her life with husband Kristof has been punctuated by affairs – his more numerous than hers and including a fling with her friend. Eve’s revenge rebounds on her savagely.

At 60 Eve has cast family ties aside to swoon into a consuming passion for her flower painting – her Poison Florilegium, huge canvases featuring deadly plants, will be her “masterwork” – and for her assistant Luka, who is half her age.

Beginning slowly, the story gathers pace and tension, speeding to a stunning conclusion.

Annalena’s research into flowers and art feeds into writing exuding authenticity. Her description of the painting process, the preparation of powdered pigments, the colours, is fascinating and vivid, her depiction of plants lyrical.

Flesh-eating cobra lilies have “curled leaves rising like snakes”; the “five-petalled star” of the poisonous Gelsemium flower is ‘“fragrant as orange blossom, innocent… as a child’s painting of a summer sun”.

She said of the botanical art course: “I did a number of pencil sketches and drawings in charcoal and silverpoint and I learned about different techniques and plant morphology.

“It was wonderful to work up close to flowers, to really peer at them, take in the intricacy of their structures, the nuances of colour.”

She means to do more botanical art for her own pleasure.

“We didn’t work with paint in depth on the course so I relied on research and reading on the subject of pigments,” she added. “The wonderful Cornelissen artist’s shop in Great Russell Street – part apothecary store, part jewel box – was a great resource too.”

Unpleasant as the novel’s Eve is, she arouses some solidarity, and prompts underlying questions.

Annalena said: “Do you have to be a bad person – heedless of the needs of others, focused solely on your work – to create great art? And what if a woman painter claimed the same right to be as bad as some of our celebrated male artists?”

Eve feels belittled by the art world. She recharges herself by scrolling through her good reviews on her phone.

But while she has to consult these to remember the exact phrasing, she’s word perfect on the positive reviews of her rival, conceptual artist Wanda Wilson.

In a priceless scene at Wanda’s show, soiled nappies (artificially stained, mercifully) are suspended from the ceiling, and Eve spots someone “gazing upwards, as if contemplating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel”.

Annalena, who shares a liking for walking with her character Eve, has walked most of the latter’s journey across London many times.

“I’ve also spent so long travelling on the Tube that I feel the Northern line map is imprinted deep in my brain.”

She enjoys walking through “lawyers’ London” – “through the quiet, beautifully tended gardens of Grays Inn, across High Holborn, down Chancery Lane, where you can duck into a narrow walled alley before finding yourself in the tranquil haven of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with its exquisite flower beds, shrubberies and soft swathes of mown grass set against some of London’s finest architecture.”

• Nightshade. By Annalena McAfee, Harvill Secker, £16.99

Annalena McAfee’s self-isolation book choice

The Collected Stories of John Updike. “Updike was the Great Describer, conjuring the visible world with photographic precision and illuminating the interior thoughts and desires of ordinary people.”

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. “She is rightly praised for her magnificent Neapolitan Quartet but this stand-alone novella is a devastating miniature masterpiece.”

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. “Paris between the wars – a memoir of hope, creativity and youthful love in a beautiful city.”

Ian McEwan’s book choice


Above: Ian McEwan

“The pandemic can really disrupt concentration, so I’m choosing three fine short novels.”

Chess by Stefan Zweig. “A game of chess on an ocean liner. No one can beat the master. Then a voice from among the passengers speaks up.”

The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolf. “Two inexperienced soldiers guard an ammunition dump as a forest fire approaches.”

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas. “Brother and sister in remote Norway – a dreamlike novel of great beauty explores a fractured consciousness.”

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