What does a portrait say about a character? Can some intrinsic essence be uncovered with simply some paint and the keen gaze of another? How’s your judge of character? Assured or a little off the mark?
These are the questions that haunt the protagonist Alice in T.A. Cotterell’s book What Alice Knew. In this psychological drama we are led to consider how much can we trust someone, and how can we really be sure of someone, even someone closer to us than all others. The book explores this notion thoroughly, not without contradiction, but it never loses sight of its central questions. Therefore, the success of the novel depends on how well these notions are dealt with and makes for interesting consideration as a reviewer. In essence, both the central character and the reader are meditating on character. It is the most important element of the plot; as Alice considers how she can know someone, what she would do for them, and what makes a good character, so we find ourselves in a bit of a moral maze, dwelling on the nature of the good person, and wondering what exactly is a worthy personality.
Firstly, let’s say this, the book is written smoothly;it has a quick pace to it, the reader falls quickly into the storyline and is seduced by the application of psychological tension that never lifts throughout the novel. It is a mediation on truth, lies, justice and character that makes an interesting read. The language is smooth and uncomplicated and the structure of the plot adequate for the unfolding of the tale. The description isn’t exceptional, but functional for the pace of the book. Technically, the book is well composed and written and the reader can enjoy a grounded and accessible read, hence, why it is primarily the plot that we shall consider now.
Alice is a portrait artist; she paints affluent members of high society and enjoys the luxury of purely creating for a living. She is married to the wonderful Ed and has two children. They all live an idyllic life in the suburbs of Bristol. But alas, something doesn’t smell right, does it? Unless we are in for a dense, epitome of high-literature, family drama akin to Henry James (which the title references from What Maisie Knew) I’d say that something is about to go very wrong. Just a hunch.
The wonderful, beautiful, toned husband Ed may not be the shiny piece of perfection that Alice thought he was. He doesn’t come home one night and soon after his hung-over return there are a bunch of flowers addressed to him at the door. He is quiet, sleepless and shady. Until, he spills out the moral dilemma of the book: he has done something terrible, but accidental, and doesn’t believe he should be punished for it. Hence, he leaves the moral soul searching to his wife as he believes it is better for his family that he hides the truth, and by-and-by, he believes this is the least destructive solution for all of them.
So Alice is left to consider right and wrong. She is an interesting and equally frustrating character. She is the vehicle through which all the story flows. Alice uses the idea of her art as a guiding moral force in this difficult time (albeit name-dropping so many artists I’ve lost count, she’s definitely a modern art fan and has little time for postmodern conception, recognising this as a fellow art graduate I’d hazard to say always leave questions of aesthetics over concept aside, it excludes those without an interest in art whilst causing internal bickering with those who are – or maybe that’s just me). In her regular life she studies people and paints their character rather than just a likeness, she sees and judges people. Her judgement however is blunt sometimes and cloudedby preconception. You have the feeling she is a protected character; she is enjoying the abundance of an upper class existence where money is no object and sometimes this seems to inhibit her judgement, she professes to know people and know what is best for them, whether condemning them or saving them with a patronising redemptive attitude. She describes her husband Ed as an uncomplicated man – though this is obviously for the plot to play with – it stated far too much and reduces Ed to a rather flat, toned tennis player with not enough character to be truly engaging. Sometimes the text is conscious of Alice’s contradictions, but when the plot turns towards its end and we are meant to follow her as she comes to a definitive moral conclusion you are not wholly with her. Her rejection of lies and deceit seems sensible, but somehow she manages to contradict herself again with a final, massive lie that jars against the epiphany she experiences just a couple of pages earlier.
That being said this reflection may be a little pedantic on my part, we all emphasize differently with different characters and Alice may be flawed, but her dilemma is a complicated one and makes for enjoyable reading. It is a book that plenty of people will zip through and T.A. Cotterell will no doubt provide more books that will have you wondering ‘what would I do in this situation?’ You have just have to guess at that, sometimes the right thing doesn’t stand out straight away, you might find yourself in a pickle like Alice, and have to rely on your better judgement – let’s hope it’s good.
T. A. Cotterell
T. A. Cotterell read History of Art at Cambridge University. He was a freelance writer and now writes and edits for the research house Redburn. He is married with three children and lives in Bristol.
What Alice Knew was be published by Transworld Books on 4th May 2017.
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Review by Jessica Gregory
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