Hagstone by Sinéad Gleeson review – portrait of an artist | Fiction

Hagstone by Sinéad Gleeson review – portrait of an artist | Fiction

To write fiction about art is notoriously hard. Inventing bad art is easy, an excellent parlour game, but to imagine a successful artist you have to create a body of work that justifies their success, and that’s a different matter. In Hagstone, Irish critic and essayist Sinéad Gleeson’s first novel, this is done deftly and convincingly. The book centres on Nell, an artist living and working on an island a half day’s journey from the Irish mainland. Her work includes sand sculptures and sound pieces; underwater statues; a hypothetical project involving a lighthouse – all of which, as Gleeson explains in an afterword, were inspired by the work of real artists. This plausibility is vital because it underpins Nell’s character: we have to believe in her work to believe in her, and in her choice to put this work at the centre of her life. The result of Gleeson’s care is a novel about art which, wonderfully, doesn’t romanticise it. Nell’s work appears both vital and mundane; occasionally transcendent; often exhausting.

Gleeson is excellent, too, on the realities of this life. There is its gruelling physicality – “Looping wires around the trees, hoping branches would take the weight of the speakers. The possibility of electrocution” – and the endless quest for cash. “It all circles back to money in the end,” Gleeson writes. Some ideas are never converted to reality. “Grimly filling out forms, hawking the work in funding drives.” Nell supplements her income by cleaning, and by giving guided tours. She’s regarded by the island’s male population as “not wife material … Thank fuck for that”, but despite her insistence that she’s who she wants to be, her isolation is uneasy. It’s the price of being an artist, perhaps – but should it be? To question the personal cost of making art is not, Gleeson suggests, the same as questioning its value.

In other respects, though often beautiful and never less than readable, Hagstone is less successful. Of its other characters, while Nell’s on-off lover Cleary is tender, Maman, the founder of a reclusive all-female commune, never fully coalesces. The motivations of both seem, at times, opaque enough to be muddy. Cleary is invested in a relationship with Nell – “Nell senses he’s all in, after just a week” – and then, suddenly, he isn’t. Maman wants the best for the women under her care, but possibly she doesn’t, and this is less a mystery than it is an unclarity. No one, least of all the reader, seems to know what her agenda is, and this never quite resolves; but for her to have the kind of creepiness she would have needed to justify her part in the novel’s climax would have meant sacrificing moral nuance.

A semi-supernatural sound, “a phenomena that plagues the island, with no warning or pattern … [and] triggers other unexplained happenings” comes at pivotal moments; but although intriguing, it’s never central enough to feel justified as a plot device. As a result the novel’s final third, where storytelling comes to the fore, is underpowered. Plot feels imposed rather than growing from the actions of its participants – a shame, since it means that Nell’s final choice, which might otherwise reflect backwards, requiring us to reexamine our responses to the novel’s provocations, lands too softly.

Gleeson’s previous book, the nonfiction Constellations, was stylistically allusive – ideas were introduced and reintroduced, given the space to resonate. A study of female embodiment, it was by turns lyrical and furious, less interested in drawing conclusions than in mapping territory.

Hagstone is at its best when following a similar path. Early on we’re told that Nell lost a cleaning job after she stood outside a holiday let watching its inhabitants having sex; later she lurks outside Cleary’s window. Questions are raised about the relationship between art and voyeurism. At what point does a commentator become an intruder, an observer a creep? The discomfort provoked by Nell’s actions is both powerful and interesting. Later, a dead whale is washed ashore. Nell takes photographs of its corpse and sends them to an absent Cleary instead of nudes. Again, Gleeson’s writing comes into its own – there’s meaning here, certainly, but the reader must do the work of finding it and, in doing so, consider their own preconceptions.

Remembering a critic who had, she thought, misunderstood her work, Nell says that “all she wanted, all that she asked of an audience was for them to be present, or curious”. There’s a lot in Hagstone to be present for, and much to be curious about – but it also felt to me rather like two books mixed together: one modern gothic; one a novel of ideas. Separately, Gleeson would be more than capable of writing either of them. I’m not sure many people could do both at once.

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Hagstone by Sinéad Gleeson is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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