Long ago, when the men were away at the war, Alma began painting the women of the town. They sat for him in lieu of payment for his work catching rats. Alice, his favourite, returned his attentions, and when her husband, George, came home from the war, he set out to prove his love and reclaim his wife by moving a hill—wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow—for her.
Now, decades later, Alma's 'in lieu of' payment is revived, and the townspeople, looking to escape various corners of despair, turn to drawing classes. For when you draw, the only thing that matters is what lies before you.
Paint Your Wife is a colourful, sensual novel, brimming with rich stories and even richer characters.
â€œWhen you are drawing you are actually learning how to see. You do this through looking. Looking is untarnished glass. No green bits of judgement hanging from the lens. In order to draw you must to learn to see how things are â€“ not how you wish they were, or once wereâ€
Paint Your Wife is the 10th fiction book by New Zealand author, Lloyd Jones. It starts with the mayor of New Egypt, Harry Bryant returning from a visit to his son in London. It is the late 1990s, and Harryâ€™s town, on the North Island of New Zealand, has fallen on hard times. The paint factory has closed up; ideas for tourist attractions fail to gain funding; long-time locals are beginning to abandon the town for more prosperous places. In a last ditch attempt to attract attention, Harry gets Alma Martin to reproduce his old portraits of the town wives in a public space: it generates some outside interest, but also acts as a sort of catalyst for the locals, as does the arrival at Harryâ€™s place of business (Pre-Loved Furnishings and Curios),of a young couple with twins, looking for accommodation.
Alma Martin lives in the old Fire Wardenâ€™s cottage on the hill near Harryâ€™s motherâ€™s farm. He has tried his rather talented hand at quite a few things: colour technique at NE Paints; teaching; wartime rat catching; and, in lieu of payment for said rodent extermination, sketching and painting the wives of the town.
His most constant model was his neighbour, Alice Hands, but all the women, once they got the hang of sitting (â€œIt is hard to know what to do with yourself the first time you sit. You are suddenly aware of your arms and legs, too aware, and as soon as that awareness slips into place itâ€™s as if those limbs were never really an integral part of you at all, but clumsy add-onsâ€) were happy to do so: â€œAs far as the rest of the women in the district were concerned, to be looked at or observed as rare as sugar or chocolate. They could have looked in the mirror, of course. But there is nothing like anotherâ€™s eyes to set us alight, to make our nerves stand on end, to tell us, in effect, who we areâ€
They learned to be silent because: â€œWhen a sitter begins to talk the pose loses all its binding; arms and legs fall away, the mouth widens, the tongue waggles, a sense of form withersâ€ and enjoyed his attention (â€œYou know something, Alma, when you are drawing I feel like youâ€™re touching meâ€) and even his talks on art and artists (â€œIt was the war years and everything was in short supply â€“ including stimulation. Like plankton eaters they sat with their mouths and minds wide openâ€).
Jones gives the reader a cast of charming and often quirky characters; the vignettes that fill in their backstories are captivating; there is plenty of humour and a fair share of wisdom; the feel of the town is well-rendered; the descriptive prose is a joy to read, making it difficult to choose just a few quotes to illustrate this. â€œIn quick time the surrounding farmland revealed itself, straw-coloured, the black flecks of telegraph poles; and on the far edge of everything stood the ranges, in shadow at this time of day, but their jaws dropped open in the February heatâ€ and â€œSome strain told on the window panes - a tension where the floor went one way and the windows another; it was an arrangement that made the ordinary blue sky sing in the way glass achieves in chapels and courtroomsâ€ and â€œHe tells her that itâ€™s like trying to nail a fast-moving cloud to the one spot in the sky. Hopeless if the sky is moving about tooâ€ are good examples.
Almaâ€™s advice on drawing is also superbly expressive: â€œLight and shadow, he liked to say, are in constant negotiation as to which parts of the world the other can haveâ€ and â€œâ€¦seeing is not the same as looking. And in learning how to draw what you really learn is how to see. Once you learn how to see, good or bad or better doesnâ€™t come into itâ€ are just two illustrations of this.
This offering by Jones is a delightful read, moving and uplifting, and loaded with gorgeous prose. This book was originally published in 2004, two years before the prize-winning Mister Pip, but this new edition by Text Publishing has wonderfully evocative cover art by W.H.Chong. Highly recommended.