“She’d sat in front of him for three weeks and he hadn’t seen her. How odd to discover one didn’t exist.”
Man With A Seagull On His Head, by Harriet Paige, opens in the summer of 1976 when council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. The moment is witnessed by Jennifer Mulholland, a shop assistant at a nearby department store who happens to be by the shore. No words are exchanged but this brief encounter, the unexpected vision of an unknown woman as he is felled, is seared onto Ray’s subconscious. The previously ordinary middle aged man living alone, who had never thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman on every surface available and with whatever substances come to hand.
Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world. Now living in London he has been adopted by Grace and George Zoob, collectors with a penchant for the experimental. Ray is still painting his woman and nobody, including him, knows who she is. An interview in a national newspaper alerts Jennifer to her unasked for role as Ray’s muse.
Alternative chapters allow the reader to catch up with the direction Jennifer’s life has taken. Still living in her small Essex town she no longer lives in a bedsit but has become part of a wider family. She observes the decisions people around her have made and how these have changed the trajectories of their lives. Few have ended up where they expected.
“she realised that she had no true friends in the world and that there was no one at all who understood anything about who she was.”
Themes of loneliness and the small deaths of personal dreams pervade. There is an undercurrent of quiet desperation. Grace Zoob struggles with her need to be acknowledged in a world that has no need for her individual existence. Eventually she takes out her frustrations on Ray.
The depiction of the art world is amusing but it is the deftly drawn characters and their private concerns that add impressive depth to this engaging story. It is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Life may at times appear to have no purpose yet still people find ways to live.
“sometimes you just had to put one foot in front of the other and tell yourself that you’d have a nice cup of tea when you got home.”
Quirky in places but always accessible this is existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale. A book that I will now be eagerly recommending – a vividly drawn, satisfying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose.
Man With A Seagull On His Head has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.