Girl in White, Sue Hubbard

After a struggle, I finally finished Girl in White by Sue Hubbard (Cinnamon Press). Art critic Hubbard branches out into books to explore the life of German Modernist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Modersohn-Becker died a short time after giving birth to daughter Mathilde, whose curiosity is the impetus for this novel.

Unfortunately, Hubbard is too good at her day job. The prose is stretched thinly over solid facts, and the mixture does not work, instead creating a stilted structure. The writing style is rather old-fashioned, using a storytelling/reporting style in order to relate a lot of information in a short space of time. This makes the prose rather dull. It would have been more interesting if the action being described was to unfold first-hand for the reader to witness properly.

Sometimes the dialogue reads as stilted and very non-naturalistic. Often, Hubbard falls back on simplistic telling instead of showing, not bothering to explore concepts properly. Sometimes the writing is downright lazy. A castle is “like something out of Sleeping Beauty”; a bed is “like something out of Heidi”. Hubbard should have used her own words to communicate her own meaning, instead of borrowing images.

The clumsy wording continues throughout. Sometimes, phrases are awkwardly put: “a cheekbone pressed against an unshaven cheek” is possibly meant to refer to the cheekbone inside the skin. The structure of the sentence would suit the cheekbone of another pressing against an unshaven man – but that makes very little sense too. Another example is “[Paula] handed him a rose. But he turned away without taking it”. How can you hand something if the recipient doesn’t take it? “Offered” would work better.

Occasionally, there are fleeting moments of charm – such as when Paula gets to grips with the English phrase “learning the ropes”. However, the choice to constantly switch from moving, fully-characterised moments to other, inconsequential passages leaves the reader no time to process or connect with the events or characters. Too often there is irritating painting talk: both Paula and Hubbard come across as obsessed with painting but not necessarily in a good way.

Not all of the characters are fully formed or particularly tangible. Paula’s father is an exception, but even this is sometimes inconsistent. The narrative would be much more interesting if it focused on far fewer relationships and concentrated on building them up, instead of featuring a huge cast of brief appearances.

Overall, Girl in White reads like a first draft. It’s trying to portray a family affected by war (something Sue Eckstein does much better in Interpreters); it’s also an attempt to evoke connections through works of art, except it cannot stand up to the subtle charm of Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht and her debut The Tiger’s Wife. I didn’t hate this book – I just felt indifferent.



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