Nightshade, by Annalena McAfee

Annalena McAfee returns with another tale of liars and artists in Nightshade, after 2017’s Hame. Where Hame sprawled, Nightshade is a tightly constructed story of tension, fear, and obsession. As painter Eve Laing walks the streets of London and travels by Tube, she reflects on her past from her heartbreaking relationship with a mentor/lover to recent events in her own studio with a lover/assistant. My opinion of Eve changed constantly as I read the book; every new piece of information had me wondering who this chameleon really was.

One thing that never wavers in this twisty tale is Eve’s confidence in herself as an artist. She had a major hit decades before with a work called Underground Florilegium—but others might argue that she is better known as the subject of Girl With a Flower, by her former (and much more famous) lover. Years later, Eve is still incorporating flowers into her paintings and is starting to make a name for herself as an eco-artist. Meanwhile, Eve loathes her former friends and that more famous lover. She frequently refers to them as hacks, as talentless, or as one-note. Her art, she believes, has something real to say.

But just as everything seems to be going right for Eve—she has an enormous space to work, dedicated assistants, a supportive if oblivious husband, and increasing renown in the art world—things start to fall apart. It’s only as Eve comes to the end of her long way across London that we learn just how wrong things have gone for this prickly, dogged artist. I loved that this book kept me constantly on my toes as it threw new information at me. Like the best of books, the characters in Nightshade are never completely good or bad. They’re all deeply flawed humans who I could sympathize with and judge at the same time.

On top of the fascinating characters, Nightshade gave me plenty to think about when it came to contemporary art. Like Eve, I don’t understand the point of performance art. I’m not as extreme in my dislike of it Eve is, but to me I see people putting themselves in dangerous positions for audiences that are not in on the thesis of the piece, but are there to gawp or behave badly. I found Eve’s recreations of plants in large scale paintings and preserving tanks intriguing. I really wanted to see them because I find nature so very beautiful and I loved Eve’s ideas about disrupting plant blindness.

Nightshade is a fantastic blend of literary fiction and psychological thriller. Highly recommended.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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