1963. Alice and Natalie Kessler, 14 and 16 respectively, are on holiday with their parents. The family has rented the same cabin near a lake that they rent every summer. The difference this year is that the artist, Thomas Bayber, is in the cabin next door.
Bayber has practically been exiled by his family – ‘ “I paint, as you may be able to tell.” He gestured towards his clothes and shrugged. “Not something my father considers a suitable occupation.” ‘ – but the arrival of the Kesslers gives him the opportunity to paint something other than the landscape and he asks if he can sketch them as a family. He also tells them they can come over and visit when they wish, something that the two daughters are keen to take advantage of, although while Alice is open about her visits, Natalie, we discover, has been sneaking in and out of Bayber’s cabin:
A gust swept into the room and sent the pile of drawings resting on the easel flying…She started to pick them up…but stopped when she glanced at the first piece of paper she touched, a colored pencil sketch…
Even if she hadn’t looked at the face, she would have known it was Natalie. Those were her sister’s arms and legs flung so casually across the sofa, the pale thread of a scar just below her knee from a skiing accident two years prior…The tan line crossing the slope of her breasts, the small whorl of her belly button, the pale skin stretched taut between her hip bones, all the secret, private pink of her.
But the impact Bayber has on the Kessler sisters is only one half of the story.
2007. New York.
Thomas Bayber was a recluse who had stopped painting twenty years ago and one of the most brilliant artists alive.
He lives in an apartment organised by Dennis Finch who is also responsible for having catalogued every one of Thomas Bayber’s paintings. Or so he thought. Bayber has called Finch to his apartment to inform him of the existence of another painting – that of the Kessler family. Bayber insists that Finch bring in Stephen Jameson, a struggling art dealer, to assess the authenticity of the work. What Jameson discovers sends him and Finch on a journey that will begin to unravel a number of events that occurred between Bayber and the Kessler sisters.
The Gravity of Birds is an accomplished debut. Guzeman skillfully maintains several plot threads, tying different ends up at various points in the novel, ensuring that you continue turning the pages for the next part of the resolution. She writes beautifully about art (it was no surprise to discover that she paints herself), her descriptions so precise that you can see the paintings as if you were standing in front of them yourself. But what I found most interesting was the proportion of unlikeable characters – 50% of the six main players. It’s hard to describe Natalie Kessler as anything other than vile and manipulative; Stephen Jameson has recently been fired from a top art dealers for sleeping with the boss’ wife. He is arrogant and brusque. And Finch’s first meeting with Thomas Bayber goes like this:
At first he’d thought Thomas was the gallery owner. He was too well-dressed for a young artist, not nearly as nervous as Finch would have expected for someone giving his first solo show…
‘You’re not the gallery owner.’
‘Afraid not. I’m the one with all the stuff on the walls. Thomas Bayber.’
‘Dennis Finch. Happy to meet you. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I should probably excuse myself.’
‘Ah. Critic, heh?’
‘Oh, nothing to be afraid of, I’m sure. Everyone seems to think I’m quite brilliant.’
These three however, are foiled by Finch, who’s a genuinely nice man, mourning the loss of his wife; Alice Kessler, who’s naivety and vulnerability endears her to us, and one other, who I’ll leave nameless for fear of spoilers.
Guzeman’s characters – the good and the bad – are fully-fleshed and are capable of provoking a host of emotions in the reader. It was a pleasure to spend time watching their lives. I’ll certainly be looking out for Guzeman’s next book.
Thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.