Book Review: Man With A Seagull On His Head

“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.

Book Review: Randall

randall--paperback

Randall, by Jonathan Gibbs, imagines a world where Damian Hirst dies before he becomes Britain’s most eminent artist provocoteur. That throne is captured by Randall, a conceptual artist whose controversial work causes outrage amongst his closest friends as well as the art establishment and public.

The book is largely written from the point of view of Vincent, a city trader who meets Randall at the opening of his degree show at Goldsmiths in 1989 and ends up joining his circle of closest friends. From the beginning of the tale, set in 2014, we know that Randall is now dead. His widow, Justine, has contacted Vincent and asked him to fly to New York as she has something to show him. This turns out to be a series of recently discovered artworks that have the potential to turn their world upside down.

Vincent has been writing a book about Randall’s life which is presented between the present day chapters. Thus the reader learns of Randall’s rise through the national and then international artworld, and of his views on what is regarded as art. It is challenging, enlightening, amusing and somewhat poignant. Randall took his work seriously whilst mocking those who admired what he produced. He shocked for effect yet whatever he created was considered brilliant. He demanded that his admirers consider what their behaviour towards him illustrated about themselves.

The monetary value of a work of art isn’t based on the initial purchase cost but on its resale value. Art collectors are investors, traders. A piece becomes a part of their collection, its initial raison d’être serving only as an advertisement. Randall made things that looked like art and collectors snapped them up. Does what is considered art even exist or is it what fits with the accepted aesthetics of the time? Art connoisseurs can be somewhat smug, particularly when confronted with those they consider lacking in art appreciation. Randall recognised this and did what he could to rattle the gilded cages of their world.

“When it’s is the studio, it’s still part of the artist. When it’s in the gallery, it’s a commodity”

Vincent’s memoir offers insight into the art world and a somewhat possessive view of a friend. In the background are other artists from Randall’s circle who have different yet also close relationships with the man. Such is the nature of friendship but in presenting it in this way the reader is challenged to consider how well anyone can know another however close they may be, or wish to to be.

Vincent suggests that Randall despised those he relied upon for his fame and fortune, and that he often treated his friends little better. As the reader learns of the artist’s relationship with his wife and son this picture is revealed as somewhat skewed. Perhaps, as with art, each person sees only their own interpretation, coloured by what they are educated to expect.

The writing is deft and provides a fascinating, original and highly readable story. Then there is the ending. This left me wondering if the author had played me as his protagonist was wont to do. Either it is clever and I am not, or this questionning is the point. However I choose to interpret, I am frustrated that I could not complete the circle. Despite my lack, this is a recommended read.