Night Street

Kristel Thornell

Night Street
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Night Street

Kristel Thornell

An intensely satisfying novel that celebrates the short richly lived life of Australian artist, Clarice Beckett.

Co-winner of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

Night Street is the passionate story of a young painter, Clarice Beckett, who defies society’s strict conventions and indifferent art critics alike and leads an intense private and professional life. With her extraordinary talent for making simple city and seascapes haunting and mysteriously revelatory, Clarice paints prolifically and lives largely, overcoming the seemingly confined existence as the spinster daughter in the parental home.

Night Street began with Thornell’s first encounter with the paintings of Melbourne artist Clarice Beckett (1887-1935) at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The subtle power of Clarice’s highly atmospheric, enigmatic landscapes enabled her to imagine Clarice’s inner life and shape an extraordinary novel.

Born in 1975, Kristel Thornell grew up in Sydney and the Blue Mountains. She studied French and Italian at the University of Sydney and spent a year in Italy, researching the author Giorgio Bassani and then teaching English as a foreign language. She has lived in North America for much of the last ten years, in Mexico, the United States and Canada, where she completed an M.A. in English at the University of New Brunswick. She has also taught Italian language and literature, French and Spanish, and has published reviews, poetry and fiction in a range of journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Southerly and Island. For the last two and half years, she has been working on a PhD in Creative Writing, supervised by Nicholas Jose, first through the University of Adelaide and now with the University of Western Sydney. Kristell is currently living in the US.

Review

In Night Street, joint winner of the 2009 Vogel Award, Kristel Thornell presents a fictionalised version of the life of painter Clarice Beckett. A student of Frederick McCubbin and then Max Meldrum in the 1920s, Beckett produced hundreds of moody, misty tonal paintings of Melbourne streetscapes and bayside landscapes before her death in 1935. Without a studio of her own, she painted outside at dawn or dusk from the mobile easel she built herself.

Beckett’s life can be seen as bound by the conventions of gender roles and middle-class gentility in interwar Melbourne, but Thornell suggests a more complex story below the surface. She skillfully creates a sense of quiet tension between the unadventurous existence of spinster daughter dutifully caring for aging parents, and the ambition and drive implicit in Beckett’s paintings. The artist’s obvious talent and willingness to experiment rather than follow the paths expected of a woman painter of the era are highlighted, and the controlled sexual passion shown running alongside Beckett’s passion for painting provides further evidence of self-determination.

This is an atmospheric imagining of a woman doing things her own way, on her own terms, despite external constraints.

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