The literary figure of the flâneur is a symbol of urban observation. Made popular in the 19th century, the flâneur is a man of leisure who wanders through the city and watches as he walks. He attempts to understand life in the city and the feelings of alienation that can come from such a life. He is often an artistic figure who attempts to portray the dynamism of modern life through a direct engagement with his environment.
Elizabeth MacKinnon, the protagonist of Mark Blagrave’s novel Lay Figures, is a kind-of flâneuse. Though lesser-known than her male counterpart, the flâneuse also bears witness as she journeys through her city. She observes. She is immersed. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, one of Elizabeth MacKinnon’s noted idols, the flâneuse shakes off the feminized domestic realm and begins “street haunting” as a way to interact with her surroundings.
There is certainly a ghostly essence to Elizabeth’s journey. She walks up hills and crowded staircases, through parks and around Mount Pleasant, and crosses bridges that offer access to “neither one place nor the other.” As she walks, readers not only get a sense of her own outlook and opinions but also a feel for the vitality of a complicated Maritime city. Stately homes, small art studios, run-down apartments, brush factories, Provincial hospitals, and public libraries all comingle in her world. In many ways, Elizabeth is both an outside observer and an active participant in the events of the novel. Like the lay figures of the title, she is an autonomous being yet often feels moved by unseen hands.
We learn early on that Elizabeth has relocated to New Brunswick in the late 1930s. Almost by chance, she is absorbed into the artistic community in Saint John and unites with an eclectic mix of actors, playwrights, painters, poets, and potters. The various artists that comprise her community are unconventional. Serious painters like Frank Gray work alongside erratic actresses like Suzanne Packard. Some of the characters are more fully formed than others, but the narrative effectively balances depictions of this community, Elizabeth’s consideration of her artistic process, and the struggles of the Depression-era.
Lay Figures is beautifully written. Blagrave’s prose flows easily and is full of robust descriptions of both the cityscape and landscape. If a reader has ever been to Saint John, it will be easy to conjure up the smells of the city, the red brick facades, the encroaching fog, and the tension between the area’s natural beauty and its industrial infrastructure. Perhaps more importantly, readers who have yet to visit Saint John will not be at a loss. Blagrave’s descriptions are evocative and vivid, enveloping readers in sensory language as we move with Elizabeth to various locations.
While the numerous literary, artistic, and mythological references get a bit dizzying, the research put into the novel is impressive. Readers get enough detail to get a feel for the places and the people at the heart of the narrative, without feeling bogged down by contextual material.
Above all, Lay Figures provides a fascinating look into what Blagrave rightly labels “the under-sung city of Saint John.” In his note to the reader at the start of the novel, Blagrave writes of his “ongoing love affair” with the city, and his passion and commitment shine through. Saint John comes alive as characters “ponder what it means to be looked at and to do the looking.” In differing ways, readers are left to consider who ‘owns’ Elizabeth’s narrative – both the novel itself and the pieces that she inevitably writes. Although the ending leaves some lingering questions, Lay Figures offers a captivating commentary on art and creation, love, lust, and betrayal, social disparity, and the cultural history of the Maritime region.
Lay Figures has been added to the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Fiction and for Best Cover Art.
Lay Figures by Mark Blagraves
Paperback: 272 pages
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