In her virtuosic debut novel, Julie Keys masterfully renders the lives of two women — one (purportedly) Muriel Kemp, an infamous artist from Sydney in the 1920s, now in her eighties, living out her twilight years in isolation, prone to severe irascibility; the other, Jane Cooper, a young nurse and aspiring writer — whose unlikely friendship is tested by the potential falsehood of Muriel’s claims, not least of which is the fact that according to official history, and the foundation dedicated to (and named) in her honour, Muriel Kemp died in 1936.
The true brilliance of The Artist’s Portrait is its architecture. Readers follow two narrative threads: one from the perspective of a young Muriel Kemp as she clashes with the conservatism of the 1920s Australian art world, and the disgusting trivialisation and outright dismissal of women artists; while the second thread transplants us 70 years into the future, 1992, when a chance encounter with her neighbour leads to Jane Cooper taking on the role of Muriel’s biographer, and attempting to make sense of the tapes Muriel has recorded for her, which don’t match up with established facts.
What’s undeniable, Jane quickly comes to realise, is that Muriel’s history is complicated and tempestuous, littered with mystery, murder and disappearances. Unravelling the truth serves as a perfect distraction for Jane, as she deals with tensions and secrets within her own family, and faces up to her pregnancy; not just reality of caring for a child as a single mother, but the echo of Muriel’s words: “If you were serious about being a writer, you’d get rid of that baby.” Is Muriel’s adamancy of this point simply a reflection of her upbringing, and the abhorrent patriarchy she spent years confronting? Or is tied to something far more personal and heartbreaking?
Some novels are such good company that you don’t want them to end. The Artist’s Portrait is one such novel. Engrossing and compelling in equal measure; a tale about long-buried secrets and the revelations that change everything.
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publication Date: March 2019