Sue Hubbard is an established art critic and writer; I followed her art reviews in Time Out years ago, and her collected criticism - Adventures In Art (2010) - is some of the best since Robert Hughes'. So when she elects to write a novel based on a woman artist, you know it will be doubly authoritative, as John Berger, no less, testifies on the cover.
The artist is Paula Modersohn-Becker, a member of the Worpsweder community established at the end of the Nineteenth century which became the seedbed of the Expressionists. Paula Becker, who married another member of the group, Otto Modersohn, died too young - of an embolism soon after childbirth in 1907 - to fulfill her full potential, although her development was towards the objective classicism of Cezanne rather than the existential subjectivism that became the Expressionist movement.
Although familiar with some of her work, I knew little of Modersohn-Becker's life, so I can't tell how much of the narrative - apart from the documented trips to Paris, meetings with Rilke and Clara Westhoff, family life - is factual, how much is invented. And that is itself tribute to the way Hubbard weaves a seamless texture around those few givens, the texture of day-to-day life - in squalid but intoxicating Paris, on the peat moors of Worpswede, in the ordinary daily compromises of marriage and living.
There are some striking descriptive phrases in the texture: a "nose like a mistake"; a mouth like an unhealed wound; her dead father's expression - "as if he had just understood something important"; Rilke's pale complexion as if he had spent too much time in the moonlight. But Hubbard eschews fanciful writing as such, resists the temptation to use literary equivalents of Expressionism, wanting not to alienate the reader but draw them into the narrative, allowing the descriptions of Paula's own works - her paintings - to carry the emotional weight. In this she succeeds beautifully - I was hooked by the narration, and the fierce vulnerability of the character evoked.
But there is another strand, a further dimension. Paula's narrative, in the third person, is intercut by the first-person narrative of her daughter Mathilde, searching imaginatively for the mother she never knew. This is tactically significant for two reasons.
Firstly, Mathilde's journey from her home in Berlin to Worpswede takes place in 1933 - the beginning of the events that would turn the most lurid of the Expressionists' visions into reality. In fact, her journey is prompted by the loss of her lover, a Jewish musician forced into American exile. This suggests a wider interpretation of what the stolidly German Worpswede community were unconsciously seeking.
But secondly, it puts both author and reader in Mathilde's place, of knowing almost nothing of Paula beyond her work, of having to imaginatively construct her from those works and the few known details.
But that in turn accentuates the deftness with which Hubbard does just that; its ending, with Paula's conviction at her death that her approach to her vision is at last clear, returns us to the work, the paintings, and allows us to share that sense of artistic triumph. A triumph which is Hubbard's as well as Paula Modersohn-Becker's.
This is a compelling novel for anyone interested in art; and anyone who isn't, but loves good literature.