When Augusta "Gus" Medelman has an affair, she and her husband, Owen, leave Philadelphia for a little rural respite. A fortuitous inheritance allows them time to work — Gus is a painter and Owen is a writer — and space to depressurize. Gus' memories are stacked with grief; her patience for Owen's often upper-handed silence grows thin. Her father's dementia, the death of her treasured sister Charlotte, the long-ago death of her mother, Owen's infertility: All of it haunts the often claustrophobic farmhouse. The near past and the far weigh on Gus as she tries to take on a new project, painting portraits of dead soldiers from obituaries she's discovered in the walls of the attic. Enter: Alison Hemmings.
Though Alison, a cheery, newly divorced British woman slightly older than Gus, is a welcome presence — and in some ways a relief — Gus suspects her of holding back. Slowly, though, they learn to trust each other, taking walks around the nearby pond, revealing their inner worlds, secrets and tumultuous pasts. But when Alison's attractive daughter Nora comes to town and begins to fawn over Owen, their marriage is again put to the test.
It's not giving anything away in Robin Black's "Life Drawing" (Random House, 241 pages, $25) to say that Owen has already passed away at the beginning, and Gus narrates in hindsight. The trajectory Black casts is one of an assorted gallery of self-curated memories. And this is where Black shines. It doesn't much matter that little happens over the course of the 200-plus pages. There's enough fermenting tension here to make glass shatter.
Owen, who veers dangerously close to a broody cliché, "imagines that his prose has wandered to a distant acre of our universe, curled up and died." Gus can't talk about her new project for fear of upsetting Owen. The air is further compressed when Laine, her former student and the daughter of her ex-lover, comes for a visit. Owen is furious, and his distrust rekindles.
As in her story collection, "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This," Black's prose is precise, direct, quietly poetic and reflective. Which is why the novel's rush to a melodramatic halt is somewhat disappointing. It doesn't spoil the whole book, though. The first 50 pages are particularly thrilling, full of keen observations. Gus brims with endless proverbs; she's part pseudo-Buddhist philosopher, part poet of ever-crackling interior. Though "Life Drawing" is a bit uneven, its passionate investigations of the pains of betrayal are intoxicating, and it's clear that Black has some unfinished business in the novel department.
Josh Cook is the editor at large of Minneapolis-based Thirty Two Magazine.