Portrait of the artist

<strong>Feather Man</strong>

Rhyll McMaster <em>Marion Boyars, 312pp, £9.99</em>

Rhyll McMaster's debut novel is simultaneously a portrait of an artist, an examination of the emotional alchemy from which art is born and a coming-of-age tale. It suspends Sooky, the girl protagonist, in a 20-year chrysalis first spun in Brisbane by Lionel, Sooky's abusive next-door neighbour and the dreaded featherman of the title. There is a little of the fairy tale about Sooky, her "real" name being only hinted at throughout, referred to as Greek and esoteric.

The juxtaposition of mystery and harsh grit lends the book a compelling friction. It opens with Lionel preparing chickens for consumption ("he put his whole hand up their bum holes and pulled out their innards"), before throwing a decidedly underaged Sooky's notepad across the yard and forcing her into sex. Sooky is already in mutiny against some future transformation into her passive-aggressive mother, who makes the role of nurturer frightening: "If I disturb my mother in the kitchen after a meal I find her gnawing at our chop bones or eating leftover pieces of fat and gristle . . . She doles out such meagre portions for herself at the table . . . It's not ladylike to take a lot."

Sooky leans away from the influence of her mother with such energy that she falls into dependence on male power: the approbation of her manic, charismatic father. After he absconds with a symphony orchestra violinist, Sooky is still only able to accept herself on men's terms. Four sections, entitled "Lionel", "Peter", "Redmond" and "Paul", delineate the spheres of influence exerted by sexual relationships on her art. Sooky's art is biographical and big with greed for the details of her life, a story she shatters with her complete lack of interest in rebuilding as she draws and paints: "I am too preoccupied to move from home. I can't imagine myself in a flat, so I do nothing about it. If I could visualise it I would do it . . . What's more pressing and numbing is, I can't visualise myself."

She paints her parents standing together in the kitchen at home, staring vacantly, their finned bodies emerging from sardine tins. She draws a teenage friend "in sections, the way I have always seen her". Sooky is a girl moving away from her past across a bridge that disintegrates behind her at every step. Her interaction with the men in her life writhes with infection - worms and cold sores passed from body to body. And pain, especially within the parameters of Sooky's marriage to Lionel's son, Redmond, is inflicted and borne with dreamlike helplessness, as if fated.

The Redmond segment begins before Sooky's relationship with Peter is even properly over. Peter, a medical student and football player a comfortable million miles away from ever accessing Sooky's interiority, calls her "honey heart" and proposes marriage. He won't leave her, he says, unless she says she hates him: "Go on. If you can say it, I'll go." Gripped by a fear of "dwindling into domesticity", she is capable of saying anything, and Peter finds he has unwittingly given her a formula for making him disappear. But, having dazzled Sooky by seeming to draw people to him without needing anybody, Redmond inflicts loss after loss upon her. They marry and move to London to kick-start Redmond's career as a gallery curator, and Sooky is cut adrift from her mother and the town, the familiar grooves she pitched herself against. Worse, she feels suppressed by Redmond's dismissive attitude towards the personal nature of her art.

There is a grim humour in the deterioration of their marriage as she realises that Redmond keeps both his financial and his emotional resources solely for himself. Waking the morning after an argument over whether or not to abort her accidental pregnancy, Sooky wryly notes: "We have both fallen asleep with our boots on, as if upon waking we plan to kick each other to death." The further she is from home, the more she is guided, chastised, encouraged and demoralised by her internalisation of her relationships with her mother, father and long-dead Lionel, which she hears as voices.

Redmond leaves her life with no little violence, and this violence frames her realisation that her husband's suppression of her art was a suppression of her very life: "Some monster called Redmond has drunk my blood, cut off my hands and feet . . . He must have cut my head off first and eaten my brain so I didn't notice. I must have thought it was a love bite . . ." Finally, it is the sheer distance from the identity she built around place and past (an identity which extended to marrying the son of a man who had abused her) that enables Sooky to locate herself outside of the cramped house the featherman built for her.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis