Stockley gave readers a run for their money in her previous novel, A Factory of Cunning, and this one only consolidates a reputation for clever plotting and rich character studies. “A gorgeous, lone, enigmatic male,” the young Gilver Memmer bursts upon the London art scene in a blaze of glory, his talent undeniable.
Gilver makes his fortune, much-feted by a thirsty London art world that idolizes youth, beauty and artistic genius, amassing a considerable fortune while cutting a swath through the ladies, talent and wealth powerful aphrodisiacs: “This early connection between artistic skill and the granting of sexual favors was not lost on him.”
Although he is “too compliant in facile skill and ubiquitous popularity to do more than walk his talent on a slack rein,” Gilver prepares to conquer America with a New York showing; but an assistant’s fluke precipitates a disaster, ruining his debut. In London, however, the fiasco only adds to the artist’s cache as Gilver throws himself into a flurry of social activities.
Ten years later, his hubris unchecked, the artist has not painted anything new, gliding through the years on his social skills. Eventually, even the accumulated wealth is gone and he faces a far different future, his luxurious accoutrements and sartorial indulgences of little use without the means to support such a lifestyle.
After a fire destroys everything he owns, Gilver goes to ground, living in a shabby loft where he daily drinks himself into a stupor, sliding into a blur of one-night stands, “the momentary oblivion of an indifferent embrace.” Trapped in a cycle of dissipation, Gilver is deeply disturbed by the gray hairs, the loose flesh, myriad physical betrayals, his chaotic personal life neutralizing his only hope of redemption, his work.
Into this depressing scene comes Alice. Gilver meets Alice while making a pathetic attempt to render his flat livable, and she inspires him to paint again, although he is woefully inhibited by a paralyzing fear of failure, almost missing an opportunity for artistic and personal redemption. The past collides with the future through Alice’s friend, the edgy Juliette, who has long nurtured a particular interest in Memmer.
Obscured by years of drunkenness and emotional cowardice, Gilver’s genius is nearly obliterated by an untamed ego born of the praise of the London glitterati and the immaturity of self-gratification. Alice is a fortuitous accident, a promise barely recognizable to the downward-spiraling artist, while the seductive Juliette bears the seeds of his destruction.
Stockley has written a stylish novel that skims the dark and vulnerable underbelly of artistic temperament, the subtleties of life versus art and the yin and yang of creativity and ego, genius fused with angst in a subtle tour de force.