Blog Tour & Book Review for THE BACKSTREETS OF PURGATORY by Helen Taylor
THE BACKSTREETS OF PURGATORY by Helen Taylor
☕ ☕ ☕ ☕
Read An Excerpt
Art, truth and madness come to blows in this darkly funny debut novel from a startling new talent.
THE BACKSTREETS OF PURGATORY is the type of book I crave, but rarely get a chance to read. The author manages to weave together a quirky, smart, and darkly humorous narrative all the while giving the reader unique twists and turns. What struck me the most about the story was the writing. I loved the way the author shows the messiness and many facets of life through very real characters. Then there is the added bonus of having art front and center.
I am not going to lie. Though I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I know it might not be for everyone. There are moments when I wanted the flow of the story to move at a quicker pace and I got caught up on some of the slang in the book. However, none of this stopped me from truly enjoying this book.
Reviewer Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Finn Garvie’s life is one spectacular mess. He spends most of his time fannying around a makeshift Glasgow studio, failing to paint his degree portfolio, while his girlfriend Lizzi treats him like one of her psychology patients, and his best friend Rob is convinced that the tattoos he designs are the height of artistic achievement.
To top it all, Finn is worried that some stinking bastard is hanging around, spying on him, laughing at his cock-ups and eating his leftover curry. Fortunately, he has plenty of techniques to distract him – tackling the church hall renovations with the help of his alcoholic neighbour; pining after Kassia, the splendidly stroppy au-pair; and re-reading that book on Caravaggio, his all-time hero.
Things take a turn for the strange when he finally encounters the person who’s been bugging him, and it seems to be none other than Caravaggio himself…
About the Author: Helen Taylor is a writer living in France. The Backstreets of Purgatory is her first book.
David with the Head of Goliath
Finn hauled up the jeans that were slipping down his arse and kicked open the door of his studio. The first thing he clapped eyes on was the blank canvas he’d shoved in the corner two days earlier. It was staring at him from under the eaves, gesso-primed and expectant and menacing him with its vacant expression. As far as Finn was concerned, it could fuck right off. It was just one other thing that was conspiring to do his head in. One more trial to add to the litany of tribulations he’d had to endure on this particularly shite of shite days. And, as if that wasn’t enough, to pile injury on top of the insults, his studio was stifling. Heated by communal pipes that had come on automatically despite the unseasonal November warmth. Finn slung his jacket over the chair at his workbench and went to open the window. Air was required pronto before he suffocated on the heat and general crapness that was his life.
From the vantage point at the top-floor window, above side streets already dark from the shadows of surrounding tenement flats, the fire-damaged Mackintosh Building was just visible. In a lamentable attempt to stop the day’s events replaying inside his head, Finn tilted open the window pane and breathed in the evening air. Work on the Art School had finished hours ago, but the air still hung with sandstone and steel and sawdust, and echoed with the clank of scaffolding and the shouts of the workies and stonemasons and carpenters who were crafting the life back into the place. But the facade was half hidden behind a casing of scaffolding. As if, Finn reckoned, the building itself was ashamed of its bruises of soot, its blackened scarred lintels and busted lead glass. It was too pitiful to gaze on for long.
Instead, he looked southwards, westwards towards the bloated evening sun, to where the city stretched to the river and beyond. On the horizon, against the sherbet sky, the city’s few remaining tower blocks wobbled rotten-toothed style under the flossy clouds. In the old days, Finn knew, by the time those clouds had crossed the city from the airy open spaces and wealthy merchant villas of the West End to the claustrophobic slums of the industrial darkland in the east, slaves to the prevailing westerlies, polluted by the smoke and filth of the burgeoning urbanisation, they’d be sullied from their silver linings to their rain-loaded centres and couldn’t help but stain whatever they touched. Sugar and tobacco. The dark twin souls that founded the city.
As the sun dipped towards the horizon, Finn gazed out over the fading metropolis hoping somehow the sight would lift his mood. Whatever its inglorious past, he felt a strong allegiance to his adopted home town. It hid its compassionate side behind the myth of hard men, cheap alcohol and the splendour of squalor and violence. There were few places that appealed to him in quite the same way.
Squalor and violence were all well and good, but it was clear to Finn that his diversionary tactics were failing. Even putting aside the day’s events, he couldn’t shift his mood. And it wasn’t helped by his surroundings. This outstandingly nondescript studio in its equally nondescript building. It wasn’t what he’d signed up for. He’d imagined himself cosseted in the sandstone and oak art nouveau masterpiece along the road (until some stupid fuck had burnt the place down), adding his own few kilograms to the weight of his- tory.
Dismally, Finn pulled himself away from the window and turned back to face the studio, half hoping that while his back had been turned the place had undergone a transformation that would at least make hanging out there bearable. But, as usual, like every other time before that time, he found it in exactly the same mundane state as it ever was. Torn between the unappealing proposition of attempting some work or aggravating his depression further with a few pints down the pub, he wandered over to his workbench and poked around in the mess. The bench was scattered with tubes of oils and brushes he hadn’t washed properly since his undergrad, and photos that he’d printed out and failed to sketch. He sharpened a desultory pencil or two, incapable of doing anything more productive.
In summary, it had been a bad day. One of many in the last few weeks. The trouble was that things weren’t panning out the way he had expected. Term was disappearing and he hadn’t produced any work he was happy with. Any work full stop, if he was being precise, and everything was conspiring to make sure it stayed that way. An hour earlier, sitting on the pavement opposite the building site in the late afternoon sunshine, drinking coffee-machine espresso and flicking ash from his roll-up at an out-of-season ant trail to see if he could make them do an about-turn, he’d told himself he could do this, he could manage, he could cope with the daily crap. It was just a matter of getting over himself.
That was until he stopped by his tutor’s office to pick up his essay. Fail. Totally fucking unjust. The title was genius: ‘Navel Gazing in the Twenty-First Century: How Art Stopped Speaking to the People’. He’d slipped the colon in for irony. If he’d learnt one thing on this course, it was that an essay title without a colon didn’t cut it in academia.
Finn chucked the sharpened pencils back on the bench. He didn’t need this extra pressure. The unpainted pictures that haunted his every second were making him feel more than bad enough. He scraped a chair across the floorboards and sat for a while with his back to the window, hoping inspiration might visit when he wasn’t stalking it. From a distant playground, high-pitched yells of kids arguing over five-a-side floated through the open pane. Lazily, he stretched his neck over the backrest of his chair making his skull crunch against the frame. He envied those kids the liberty of their brutal childhood. Not for him, his mother had dictated, the grazed knees of inner-city asphalt. She’d had much more suburban ambitions for her son.
A burst of orange from the setting sun flared over Finn’s shoulder and a draught flurried around him, blowing straggles of hair off his brow so they momentarily danced in the blaze. He dropped his arms by his sides to loosen the tension in his shoulders. Fail? It wasn’t credible. Basically, the problem was that his tutor didn’t get him. Rather than finding him subtly ingenious and modestly amusing, the woman had slagged him off, saying his essay was dismally thought out, his prose chaotic, his grammar poor. Putting his place on the course in jeopardy. Frankly, she was way off. Just plain rude. There was much more to his essay than saying modern art was elitist shite. If that’s what she thought, she hadn’t read it properly. Finn tipped back in the chair, gripping the seat edge, testing the limits of his balance. His fingers buzzed with pins and needles, and the skin over his knuckles was tight and bloodless. At that angle, everything looked upside down. Everything was upside down. By rights, he should be top of the class, not floundering in the fucking depths.
He stayed like that for ages, with his feet planted on the floor and his head leaning over the back of the chair, letting the cool breeze whisper over his face and listening to the last of the kids’ shouts before they headed home for their tea. Of all the things that hacked him off, he’d say the worst was that his tutor had questioned his commitment. Honestly, she didn’t know shit. He’d been infected by an obsession for the whole palaver since he was a boy and his wee granny – his Italian grandma on his old man’s side – had opened his eyes to it all. Continental claptrap, his old doll called it, and reckoned his brain had been addled. An opinion that wasn’t lessened when his granny died and Finn decided the most effective way to avenge her, the only way to honour her as she deserved to be honoured, was to completely piss off his social-climbing mother, subvert his turgid middle-class upbringing, show up the future doctors and lawyers that were his classmates and class enemies for the closed-minded, tight-arsed crowd-followers that they were, and commit entirely to the role of misunderstood artist. Which he’d done with a fervour until the pretence and the reality had become inseparable. Advanced Higher art, A; BA (Hons) Fine Art, First Class Honours; Leverhulme Scholarship for this course.
Master of Fine Art. It had a certain ring. Brackets Distinction, Finn told himself, if he could hold for five. He lifted his feet off the floor and for a moment – arms like wire coat hangers, legs stretched to bootlaces by the shadows spilling on the floorboards – he was perfectly balanced, until the weight of the junk in the pockets of his jacket pulled the chair backwards beyond its equilibrium. His stomach bounced past his heart and he slammed his feet down, managing to save himself at the last second. He glanced around. No witnesses, bar that fucking canvas. Distinction now questionable.
The last of the setting sun sank below the skyline and the studio plunged into shadow. Finn shivered. For reasons that were beyond him, his tutor hadn’t appreciated his thesis that the only talent required to succeed these days was the ability to arse-lick the establishment and ignore the offensive taste. Not that he’d said it quite in those words. But you didn’t have to look too far into the belly of said establishment to find the type of nonsense he was talking about. Works so far up their own rectum they’d more or less turned themselves inside out. Works that took no skill or proper thought, and which stank of mediocrity and after-the-fact justification. The type of self-reverential, self-referential excrement designed only to be understood in the context of the intention of the artist. Or in the context of other work. Exactly the kind of postmodern crap he couldn’t be arsed with. Not that he couldn’t shite-speak with the best of them. It was just that he didn’t see the point.
What remained of the sparse daylight sidled around the patches of dirt on the studio window and through the open pane, and trickled over the back of Finn’s neck and he sank into a melancholic stupor. He knew he should do something but he couldn’t bring himself to move. Briefly, he considered phoning Lizzi because she usually had some words of wisdom when it came to matters of the psyche (although, in truth, they tended to sound as if they had been lifted straight from the pages of her course book, so he rarely bothered to listen).
The thing was, hard though it might be to believe from his current state, Finn wouldn’t say he was generally morose by nature. Especially in this city, with its aberrant charms in such abundance. On cue, a gull squawked from the nearby pedestrian precinct. As vermin Finn had always contended that seagulls were totally underrated. In days gone by, whenever he arrived back in Glasgow after surviving a trip to his parents’ place, their squawks had signalled his home- coming and the racket alone had served as relaxation therapy. More than once, he’d considered recording it and selling it as some kind of urban whale music. Or licensing the concept as an ad for VisitScotland. Where Trafalgar Square had pigeons, Sauchiehall Street had gulls. Ugly bastards that bullied the shoppers and scavenged the remnants of Happy Meals. The avian equivalent of neds, the ad would explain, in their light grey hoodies and matching sweat- pants. If you thought about it, as a uniform it couldn’t be more impractical. Except for the protection that any uni- form gave: anonymity. Can you describe the person who stole your handbag, madam? Yes, officer. Some wee shite in a grey tracksuit.
Time was ticking on but Finn was at a total loss how to fill it. He rubbed his eyes, yawned, stared gloomily at his surroundings. The only thing of any interest to him at all was the stack of art books piled against the wall that he’d blown his scholarship money on. Truth be told, he’d only actually bothered to read the one on Caravaggio (an excellent and informative book, though missing one little-publicised but pivotal biographical detail of particular relevance to the Italian side of Finn’s family), although the others served as an effective stool for visitors on the occasions the need arose. Without getting out of his chair, Finn stretched his leg to trap the Caravaggio under the sole of his trainer, and dragged it across the floor until it was within reach.
He leant down and heaved the book on to his lap. In a stupendously unimaginative and banal comeback to his arse-licking hypothesis, his tutor had accused him of being reactionary, just because he’d argued that art had reached its apice in seventeenth-century Rome. Apice. Finn savoured the Italian word. The language was part of his heritage. A quarter of it to be exact. He wasn’t reactionary. He was simply loyal to his roots. He should have stuck up for himself. Told the woman where to stick her personal affronts. Taken a lesson or two in social niceties from the big man.
Finn ran his hand over the cover of the book. It was at times like these he wished he could have actually met Caravaggio. It wasn’t only in his personal life that the man was a total headcase. When it came to his paintings, he was a genius, a maverick, a maverick genius, trailblazing through the Counter-Reformation, subverting the social order. His work was intimate, intense, incandescent. It transluminated painting, lighting the way for il popolo, so you stepped into the picture, became part of it, no longer kept behind the crush barrier by bouncers in the pay of snooty classicism and exaggerated mannerism. Finn paused for a second to reflect. Did you call those folk who worked in galleries bouncers?
The book was heavy in Finn’s lap. He turned the cover and fanned the pages. It fell open at David with the Head of Goliath. In the semi-darkness, he examined the familiar painting. Despite the violent subject, he’d always found the image bizarrely tender. And he’d have had to have been completely gay-blind not to appreciate the astonishing homoerotism. A version of David, sword glinting, naked torso pale – almost glowing – against the pitch background, holding the disembodied head of his conquest by its straggly black hair, and on his, David’s, face, an expression of such detached compassion that you’d swear it wasn’t him who had killed the poor bastard and chopped his head off. And Caravaggio as Goliath, staring into a chasm, his left eye wide, the right glazed over, mouth open in a death yell as if he didn’t yet know that his number was up.
Given a choice for one to hang above the mantelpiece, handsome David and his ugly mate wouldn’t be top of Finn’s list. That said, the thing still spoke to him. Much like the painted David, Finn felt sorry for the big man. If you believed all the medical stuff, Goliath was probably over- producing growth hormone from a tumour or suchlike, sprouting upwards without the energy to sustain him. Which, from what Finn had read, meant even an asthmatic flea could have blown the lanky fucker over. Not a great physical triumph for young Davy at all, when you thought about it.
The temperature in the studio was dropping. Darkness was enveloping the room. Finn knew he ought to move – shut the window, turn on the light, work or go home – but the picture wouldn’t let him go. He had to concentrate. It was telling him more than he could easily hear.
When he’d cast himself as the villain, Caravaggio hadn’t spared himself. Not just because he’d portrayed himself in all his magnificent ugliness. It was the symbolism he’d used. The right eye – the eye of morality and virtuousness – unseeing. The left – not just the sinister left in Renaissance, Post-Renaissance art, but the side of the deepest emotions, of love, despair and all the unnavigable nonsense in between – still open, still pleading. It was more than an allegory, more than a self-portrait. It was a petition for mercy, an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing. This was his plea, for safety, for protection, a return from exile after the murder he committed in Rome. Finn could hear his cries. If you don’t spare me, my genius will be wasted. Even in this purgatory, the artist recognised a greater obligation. Lizzi would probably argue that it was nothing of the kind. Rather that it was a confession of the artist’s homosexual proclivity, that his boyfriend’s sword was simply a massive shiny boner (although Lizzi would probably have framed it in different terms) and that old Caravaggio was begging to be punished. But then she read repression and Catholic guilt in almost everyone she came across. Flag-waving Proddies included.
In a distant office, a phone rang out. In the corridor, part- ing footsteps echoed off the plaster walls. All around, the joists of the old building creaked. It was relaxing, settling down for the night. Soon he would be the only person left, bar the porter on the front desk. Finn placed the open book on the floor at his feet and hauled himself out of the chair. Another day gone. Another day wasted. Taking care not to catch the eye of the blank canvas on his way, he went to the window and pulled it shut. Give or take a functioning organ system or two, he’d put that canvas as quite literally the personification of his artistic paralysis, he’d say. Brush- stroke by non-existent brushstroke, his portfolio was turn- ing into one massive non-event. The original plan for his project had been vetoed by his tutor because she was under the impression he was taking the piss. Finn picked up his jacket off the back of the chair and shoved his arms into the sleeves, bewildered by the injustice of it all. His Bingo project was serious. More than serious. It was about community, poverty, friendship. It was about money being the new religion and the poor being condemned to a living hell. It was about false hope and real despair. He wanted to do the things that Caravaggio had done, subvert the social order, make the art-buying class indebted to those who would never have more than the poster replica, but apparently all he had succeeded in doing – if he listened to the pseudo-sociological gibberish that his tutor spouted – was patronise the very people he wanted to represent.
One last glance at David and Goliath before he closed the cover of his book, however, was enough to rally him. The fact was his tutor didn’t know one end of a paintbrush from another. He didn’t need permission from the uptight spinster to paint what he wanted to paint. He certainly didn’t need assignments and essays and marks out of ten to show that he had talent. It wasn’t as if Caravaggio had had formal training. According to Finn’s own granny, he’d ditched his apprenticeship and spent his money whoring and brawling his way around town with his buddies.
Finn shoved the book into his messenger bag. The picture was clear. In black and white and in extremes of contrast. If he stayed here – in this straitjacket of fakery and privilege
– he would never see the light. He should be out there with the people – grey tracksuits, Bingo and all – not hanging around here, being misunderstood and dragged down by all these pretentious losers. Fuck it. It was time he followed Caravaggio’s lead.
For the first time in days Finn managed a smile. He slung his bag over his chest and – pausing only to kick over the unpainted canvas for no other reason save that it was asking for it – legged it out the place like his life depended on it.
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Unbound (August 28, 2018)
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