Circles of Deceit Nina Bawden’s 1987 novel about lies, deception and family fragilities, was short listed for the Booker prize in that year.
“All art is full of deception. Nature, too and human behaviour…”
There is an awful lot to admire in this later Bawden novel – which I seem to remember somewhere being described as among her greatest. Unusually for Bawden it is written from a male perspective, although this isn’t the only novel Bawden writes with a male narrator – and she does it well. Bawden portrays young people and children deftly; their hurts and frailties exposed with great understanding, although I find all her characters here are real, complicated beings.
“Like many another craftsman, like an apprentice stone cutter carving gargoyle on a cathedral, I want to make my individual contribution to the grand design. I copy the painting with all the skill at my disposal, all the tricks; squaring up, measuring with calipers, using photographs, a projector, a light box for transparencies to get as near as I can to the true colour. I try to match the pigments used by the artist, grinding my own Naples yellow, or buying it in a tube from Budapest where it is still legal to sell it ready made with lead and antimony. But instead of adding my signature, I change some insignificant feature. I alter the expression of a man in the crowd, add a tiny animal face in a dim corner, a mouse or a weasel, replace the diamond on a woman’s hand with a ruby, paint a watch on a wrist in an eighteenth-century portrait.”
Our narrator is a painter, an unnamed artist, whose chief income is made as a copyist of old masters to which he adds, his own tiny little signature touches. This is a trade of deception, where the eye can’t always believe what it sees; the artist hides his own little twists in the reproductions of great paintings. The painter is a man surrounded by family, badgered particularly by the women in his life, and rather haunted by his troubled son Tim. There is his ex-wife Helen, who left him, but from whom he can never really separate and his current wife, Clio – more than twenty years his junior who has brought her young son Barnaby to the marriage. Helen is a dentist; her middle class family never having had much to do with the in-laws their daughter’s marriage imposed upon them . Helen is obviously the love of the artist’s life, and even after their marriage breaks down, the ties between them remain strong. Their son Tim, although a young adult remains fragile, and they share the worries and griefs over their tortured schizophrenic boy who after his parent’s divorce has remained living in his father’s house.
“Once you start looking, the army of the lost multiples. Every turn holds them, each derelict for a heart-stopping moment familiar, but then, immediately, shadowy, nameless; huddled in doorways, raking through dustbins, shuffling down side streets; bundles of old clothes stretched out on benches, on tomb stones, over warm air gratings. I thought – I would make a bonfire of Rembrandts to warm them. If I had the option.”
Tim’s sudden and unexplained absence from home terrifies his parents although his young step-mother is less concerned. Clio is young; her son was born when she was just seventeen, and she is not a natural mother. Now four year old Barnaby is a dear little boy in desperate need of love, his step father quickly becomes his adored ‘Daddy’. Clio is a runner, running miles across London; she is also insecure, jealous and suspicious of her new husband’s connection with his former wife.
Maisie, the artist’s mother, has never tried to disguise her East end origins, she hangs some of her sons copies of old masters on the walls of her tiny terraced house. All our narrator was ever told about his absent father is an apocryphal sounding tale of a dodgy wine deal that went wrong. Maisie’s sister, Maud was given and made the most of the opportunities she received after being evacuated during the war. Now Maud lives in Chelsea, drives a Porsche and has left the East End behind her. She is a lecturer, a biographer, a single woman whose friendship with Ned and his wife looks like it could take a different turn when Ned is widowed. Maisie and Maud’s mother Razor Annie was a tough East End woman who is now in a home suffering from some form of dementia. Helen’s brother Henry is having an affair with the daughter of an old friend and art dealer, a woman who was at school with Clio. Like the layers of paint on an old canvas, the stories of the painter’s family weave back and forth from past to present, gradually revealing the hidden fissures beneath. The deceptions of both art and life are woven seemlessly together in a brilliant conclusion.
This is a quietly powerful novel. In Circles of Deceit Nina Bawden sensitively explores the deceptions of life and the ways people seek to protect others with love.