Friday, May 15, 2015

Back Flip by Anne Denoon

I was hesitant to start this book because I know absolutely nothing about visual art. Like really, nothing, academically or socially. But that's ok, because you really don't need to know anything to read (and enjoy) it. I was surprised to learn that this is a first novel, because it is very tight and thematically on point.

The story is set in 1967, in Toronto's Yorkville art scene. The eponymous painting is the stand out piece in a show by a young artist, Eddie O'Hara, widely heralded as the next Tom Dale - another character slowly, drunkenly, but somewhat happily entering middle age as a well respected and successful painter. The owner of the gallery and O'Hara's art dealer, Gonzaga, sees the value in the painting and impulsively retains it, secretly. This sets a number of plots in motion in a novel that is already quite full of secrets and strange misunderstandings.

Denoon writes well - pretty but succinct - and the pace is perfect. The novel sort of bobs along as a fluffy soap opera of mistaken intentions, unrequited love, and sly observations, but there is a dark undertone of cynicism about the art world and authenticity (in art and life). And it does become more of a tragedy near the end, or at least some storylines start to slide that way. 

What sets the book apart and makes it memorable (for me anyway) is the reflection of the authenticity theme in the construction of the characters themselves. Many of the main characters are duplicates of each other - there are two aging male painters whose most successful days are behind them; two older ladies (one approaching middle age, the other in its throes) bored with being housewives and looking for extramarital stimulation; two gallery owners; and eventually, two versions of the painting - by the same artist. Which is the forgery? The same question can be asked of the characters - not one is a pale shadow of their duplicate, they are all well-rounded and clearly drawn characters in their own right. 

I thought this was a very interesting and clever technique on the part of the author, challenging our notions of authenticity and what it means to be authentic, as a person or as a work of art. Any measure of which character is 'better' in a given duo comes from values we must ascribe as observers: Eleanor is classier than Win, Eleanor is younger and prettier and richer than Win. But these are subjective assessments, based on socially constructed standards - just as art dealers and collectors assess the quality of art based on what some might call arbitrary measurements (and the novel has a nice little wink at this near the end). 

I'll save the rest of my thoughts on this for my book club, but I did really enjoy the book, and though it's a little long, it reads quickly and is compelling and fun. Most of the action takes place in Yorkville, which is neat in terms of comparing the 1967 version of the neighbourhood with today. There's a lot of great Toronto-ness here, and it's especially fun to see where everyone ends up in the epilogue, set in 2000. I love a 'where are they now' epilogue, you guys. 

Four CN Towers out of five.

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