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Private View

by Jean McNeil

Alex, a disillusioned former artist, and Conrad, a manic mid-career artist, are flatmates and sometime lovers in London’s northeast end in transplanted Canadian novelist Jean McNeil’s Private View. It is a skillfully evoked, somewhat sordid London where “the smell of asphalt boiled urine and mushed vegetables [rises] from pavements littered with the discarded entrails of flowers” and the yuppies are swiftly encroaching on what little loft space remains. The city is soggy and pretentious and overbearing and beautiful, its art world full of both talented artists and gifted pontificators.

London is also Alex’s retreat from a recent and traumatic accident in the Amazon jungle. The memory of this accident informs her daily life and wafts in and out of her dreams, giving mystery and momentum to what is essentially a character- and idea-driven story. The accident and its fallout also provide the narrator a platform for much musing on the nature and purpose of memory. Unfortunately, some of this conjecture gets lost in cumbersome extended metaphor. McNeil likes to take an image and run with it, a tendency that detracts from her more immediate and visceral descriptions.

McNeil’s characters have the luxury of examining the architecture of their lives – they like to talk about what it means to be alive in the world – and these metaphysical questions dominate many of their conversations. Readers will find these dialogues either intriguing and important or precious and self-serving. Luckily, the characters themselves are aware of the contradiction: their quests are fraught with the brand of irony that stems from self-conscious big city living.

The dialogue occasionally borders on speechifying, but because the theories discussed are usually thoughtful and timely, any “Do people really talk like that?” criticism falls by the wayside. Besides, such conversations nicely mirror the novel’s searching tone and add to a story that is rich in atmosphere and challenging in the breadth of its ideas.