Life Drawing by Robin Black

When Robin Black’s collection of stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, was published in 2010, she had been a teacher of fiction and was in her 40s, facts which seemed to pop up quite often in reviews of her book. When describing her work, critics used terms like ‘assured’ and ‘deft’, which are not untrue, but still, an eagerness to please seemed present in her work, as well as the kind of risk and experimentation we’d expect from a book of short stories.

Black’s novel, Life Drawing, centres on Augusta, Gus for short, and Owen, a middle-aged couple who have moved from Philadelphia to a small farmhouse, motivated by a desire to work more freely – Gus is a painter, Owen is a novelist – and to escape the emotional repercussions of Gus’s infidelity, which happens before the novel’s start. We know from the first line that Owen is dead, and Gus’s narration is unadorned by any kind of inflection we might find in a lesser writer.

It’s in the depiction and forming of characters that Black’s highest talent reveals itself. Gus and Owen are as keenly nuanced as real people. While she’s eshewed the experimentation of her previous work, she’s still playing to her strengths. When Gus and Owen’s solitude is disturbed by a neighbour and her daughter, Black moves the plot forward while constantly prodding these characters to reveal who they truly are.

The book’s resolution feels both inevitable and shocking, and rounds out a novel that is almost perfectly formed. With her conclusion, Black delivers a brand of satisfaction that only a great novel can achieve.

Chris Somerville works for the online team at Readings.