When it comes to books, we all have our favourite tropes and our pet peeves. Sometimes they aren’t that dissimilar, but it’s all in the execution. For instance, I love a tense story where characters dance around each other, unsure how to broach a subject, feeling stuck. However, I do not like it when characters misunderstand or miscommunicate with each other repeatedly throughout a novel. I get it; we need the occasional point to be misconstrued to move the plot along, but I also need to believe what’s happening. If a situation could be easily fixed by someone saying a sentence or two, and they choose not to, time and time again, I’m afraid you’ve lost me. It is, as with most writing, a balancing act, a fine line. Here are two books that fall on the right side of this line.
Wet Paint by Chloë Ashby is an emotional tornado of a novel. It’s about a young woman called Eve, who has recently lost her best friend Grace, and is holding it together just fine, thank you very much. She’s serving food to customers she hates, she’s broken ties with her toxic father, and she’s taken up therapy, by which she means she visits the same painting at a gallery every week. However, when one of the restaurant customers touches her inappropriately in front of everyone, and she slaps him in response, her actions are punished, his are not, and she defiantly quits her job.
This chain of events mirrors other sequences in this book, where men do not apologise for, or even acknowledge, their behaviour, and women are expected to absorb these shockwaves through some form of osmosis. Eve is struggling with this pressure to make herself small. She storms into her favourite gallery, not wanting to look at paintings depicting religious figures with her namesake, as she doesn’t want to be confronted with herself. Instead, she finds solace in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet, a portrait of a barmaid who reminds her of her friend Grace, who has passed away. This portrait, like Grace, can’t talk back. Barmaids, like both of them, are expected to be a cheerful, listening ear – serving other people, not themselves.
Almost in a bid to become this painting, Eve simultaneously accepts a bar job and takes up life modelling. The title of the novel, Wet Paint, reflects Eve’s form – she’s not finished yet. She’s evolving, melting, a shape in motion. She exists in one way for us on the page, and in an endless number of other ways on the canvases spread out across the art room. She wanders between these renditions of herself, trying to pinpoint who she is, and where she should be going.
Things We Do Not Tell the People We Love by Huma Qureshi is a textbook example of characters misunderstanding each other in believable ways. It’s a collection of short stories about family members and friends whose expectations of each other are in constant flux. My favourite tale is ‘Summer’, where a woman called Reem invites her mother on holiday to France with her husband and children. She does this accidentally, during a phone call where her mother is praising other people for being in her life more than her daughter and, feeling guilty, Reem finds herself asking her to pack a suitcase and join them.
Of course, it’s a set up for disaster. Every time Reem sees her mother, she convinces herself it will be different to the time before; that they won’t argue or dredge up unpleasant memories; that Reem won’t feel as though she’s being judged for the way she parents; that she’ll, in turn, somehow have more patience for her mother. The story feels like an airport, with time behaving in mysterious ways, nothing feeling quite real, and the story builds into this crescendo ending that I will never forget.
Both Wet Paint and Things We Do Not Tell the People We Love are compelling artistic impressions of the worlds we live in, and the silence we create for ourselves when everything becomes a little too loud.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
Images courtesy of Jen Campbell.
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