Titled after a painting of the same name by the Welsh artist Gwen John, Zillah Bethell’s Girl in Profile is actually a triptych: a profile of three ‘girls’ rather than just one. And, like the Norns in Norse mythology, each represents a state of time. Past: in early twentieth century Paris, aspiring painter Gwen (John) makes a living as an artist’s model, particularly for the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Their affair is passionate but one-sided, and now Gwen must endure agonizing hours of thwarted desire whilst she waits for communication.
Present: Moth has devoted every minute of her life to the well-being of her two children, Roan and Dove. But Dove is due to start school soon and Moth will be alone in the house all day. What will be left for a woman whose only other qualification was that she was Miss Carmarthen at 22? (The not too distant) future: Elizabeth is a resident of an Old People’s home in Tenby.
Although occasionally visited by her granddaughter, she is mostly ignored by her successful children, who, in Elizabeth’s words, ‘flew so high and so far’ they no longer needed her – and with dementia slowly robbing her of words, thoughts, memories, dreams – all that’s left is to sit with her friends, contemplate the meaning of life and their ever looming extinction. That is, until they’re started on a pen-pal project with Death Row prisoners in the US.
The three narrative strands proceed as a series of vignettes and remain largely – but, without wanting to spoil a fairly important twist, not completely – separate, but are linked thematically by a connection to Wales and various recurring motifs: longing and desire, physical, creative and spiritual; art, from the creation of it – Gwen’s paintings, the art club Moth takes her children to, the stories Elizabeth constructs in her letters – to specific pieces themselves, such as the works of Rodin and the titular painting itself; the fear of being alone; Women’s place in society; Motherhood, the rejection of it, the all-consuming embrace of it, and what happens afterwards.
The language is a feat, both luminous and earthy, with a frank and humorous attitude towards sex, sexual desire and bodily functions that never strays into needlessly vulgar. And if you think fiction always depicts painting as a rather passive activity, Girl in Profile may make you think again. I’m sure the comparison between artists and vampires is not a new one but I’m also sure you’ve never seen the creation of art described as viscerally as Bethell does, transforming the act of painting into almost an act of cannibalism, the painter all but gobbling the subject up.
The vignettes depict a ‘succession of moments’ in the lives of the three women – moments of pathos, moments of bathos and frequent moments where both are mixed together. For instance, the death of Elizabeth’s friend and fellow resident Peter: the loss of a friend is tragic but it happens because his wheelchair rolls away and upends him into a pond, like something from a particularly macabre edition of You’ve Been Framed! As they do in any life, these moments mount, accumulate, and meander towards their inevitable but bittersweet conclusion.
Girl in profile is a novel with much to admire and much that will make you think (this edition from Honno Press also includes, as an extra, a short but interesting interview with Bethell herself) and with her first book for children due out later in the year (A Whisper of Horses, published by Piccadilly Press) it will be interesting to see where else Bethell’s talent will take her.
Honno Press, £8.99