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In 2010 the performance artist Marina Abramović held a retrospective at MoMA, also staging a new work, The Artist is Present in which members of the public were invited to sit opposite her while she sat silently staring into their eyes. People really connected with the performance and by the final day they queued overnight for their chance to sit with her. Rose sets her novel around this extraordinary event, creating characters that are all drawn to the exhibition during times of personal difficulty. The two that receive the most attention are Levin, a composer whose wife is seriously ill but has put in place precautions to keep him away from her care home, and Jane, a recently widowed teacher who is travelling alone on a journey she’d hoped to make with her husband. They are both grieving, Levin at times thinking it would be easier if his wife had died - the feelings would be more straightforward, he’d be subjected to less judgment from their friends and family, and he’d know where he stood. Instead he finds himself living in a home that was meant to be theirs but in which Lydia has never lived, not sure that he quite recognises himself without her. Jane is still in the early stages of grief, setting a place for her husband at the table and being unable to concentrate as she’s always listening for him. They find something compelling in the gallery and go to visit every day. They do encounter each other, and the host of characters all have some connection to the art and a sense of loss, but their meeting is fleeting and they ultimately remain on their own separate journey. Rose skillfully weaves the threads of many lives so that they fit together neatly without ever feeling contrived.
Alongside the fictional characters, we also learn about Abramović's strange yet compelling artworks. Her relationship with her mother Danica is difficult, controlling. We see a glimmer of reflection in the relationship between Levin and his daughter Alice, yet the roles are somewhat different. Alice has always longed for more attention and approval from her father, and for him to do better for her mother. Both Marina and Danica, and Levin and Alice, are faced with impossible situations, mistakes are made, but they are doing their best, trying to protect their loved ones.
A thoughtful, beautifully written novel that seamlessly weaves fact with fiction. The characters, even if they appear only briefly, are interesting and complex. A brilliant, absorbing read that will make you think about your own relationships. Through the eyes of the characters we are given a part of the healing and fascination they experience at The Artist is Present.
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