It is difficult to see, from reproductions of Gwen John’s paintings, why her lumpy daubs are thought by many to be better than the skillful if dull portraits painted by her brother, Augustus John. Goldbloom is at pains in Gwen, her novelised version of Gwen John’s life, to say that it was so, that even Augustus knew it. Nor is it easy to understand, at this distance, just why women found those lumpy bawds Augustus and the sculptor Auguste Rodin to be utterly irresistible, but again, apparently they did – or at least the artistic ones like Gwen and Dorelia (the mistress shared by brother and sister) did. There is a great deal of sex in this book, everyone is panting with desire rather nauseatingly all of the time. Goldbloom turns Gwen – who was surely mentally unstable and delicate – into a clairvoyant who can see but not quite understand the future of the Jews in wartime Europe. This is intriguing at first but comes to dominate in a heavy-handed manner. One suspects that this is more an obsession of Goldbloom’s than of John’s. A nice idea about how Gwen can help a group of Jewish children by reaching forward through time is finally pummelled to death in an unnecessary Epilogue.
So, those are the quibbles. But Goldbloom’s prose is how we are told Gwen’s paintings are – rich, lovely, limpid and evocative. Somehow (dare we say it?) European – more Patrick White than Tim Winton. Read Gwen if you like your artists bohemian, your woman hungry, and your worlds translucent. We at TVC are most interested to see what Goldbloom does next.