Saturday 20 July 2019

A portrait of the artist as a lost man

Memoir: Matchstick Man, Julia Kelly, Head Of Zeus, €14.99

Against the bleak landscape of illness, Julia Kelly tells an exceptional love story Photo: David Conachy.
Against the bleak landscape of illness, Julia Kelly tells an exceptional love story Photo: David Conachy.

Sophie White

Seven years after they met, Julia Kelly watched her partner and the father of her young child, be confounded by the orange juice dispenser in an American hotel. He railed at the receptionist that the lifts weren't working, while guests happily ascended and descended in the background behind them. He threw a shoe in a rage.

Was this jet lag, or a hangover, or something else? Was this just him? He had always been eccentric and charismatic though not very practical. He was Charlie Whisker, one of this country's pre-eminent painters. The very reason the family was in America was for a show of his work. It was 2011 and at 61, he was becoming ever more reliant on Kelly.

The scene in the hotel is just the beginning of a darkness seeping in. A darkness chronicled in Matchstick Man, Kelly's third book and first work of non-fiction. Lost keys, angry outbursts, depression - some things Kelly put down to temperament and the strain of becoming a father for the third time at 60. What Kelly didn't know (though heartbreakingly, Whisker might have suspected) was that a terrible tide was crashing at their feet. Whisker was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's two years later.

Despite the difficult subject, Matchstick Man - the title references the spent match often deployed by Whisker in his paintings as a signature of sorts - reads far more like exquisitely crafted fiction than a litany of woes. The plot, played out in richly painted scenes, is arresting from the off. Whisker is a rakish, punky, pirate painter who's lived a thousand lives - Bangor to LA and everywhere in between. Kelly is the talented, beautiful but dissatisfied aspiring novelist. They fall in love and move to a doomed mansion by the sea. It's Ian McEwan with shades of Siri Hustvedt and a dash of Anita Shreve.

The book, it seems, began as a kind of self-exorcism for Kelly who has two acclaimed novels to her name, With My Lazy Eye and The Playground. Kelly had been outlining a third novel when the writing that became Matchstick Man began to dominate her hours. Whisker asked: "Will you write a book about me? I want people to understand what's happened to me… so they'll know it wasn't my fault."

Detritus of absent people litter Whisker's canvases while the rest of the composition often includes large blank stretches, perhaps the same kind of void we imagine the degradation wrought by Alzheimer's disease to be. Matchstick Man attempts to preserve the debris of Whisker's shattered memories. It is a portrait of him, of a relationship and of Kelly herself.

Lucian Freud is a painter noted for amplifying the uglier aspects of his subjects and through that bringing greater humanity to the work. The same could be said of Kelly, who conjures even the grimmest elements of the disease. Her frankness is brutal. "I've s**t myself," begins one chapter starkly.

There is a harshness to Kelly's writing and there is no one Kelly is harsher on than herself. She savages her own actions as she attempts to deal with the dissolution of her relationship, the loss of her mother and the unimaginable task of keeping some semblance of a show on the road. One night she is de-lousing her daughter 'Nipey' and inevitably gets soap in the child's eyes.

"She moves out of reach and I go from calm to furious in seconds… I grab hold of her small arm... 'Stop it. Stop it. Stop it'. I hiss shaking her arm too vigorously." It is a passage many wouldn't admit to friends, let alone publish. These cruel admissions seem to go beyond therapy to penance - grief and guilt are bound throughout this book.

Kelly's talent is such that she is able to wring so much beauty, pathos and even humour from all this trauma. Ultimately Matchstick Man is a celebration of Whisker's life, a collection of memories both sad and inspiring. Matchstick Man challenges us to consider what a life is and, perhaps, to appreciate it all the more.

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