Subscriber OnlyBooks

Indelicacy: An extraordinary feminist fable about women and art

Amina Cain’s debut novel on the art monster within is remarkable in its scope

Author: Amina Cain
ISBN-13: 9781911547587
Publisher: Daunt Books
Guideline Price: £9.99

“In books I found even more strongly my desire to write, to write back to them and their jagged, perfect words. I found life that ran close to my own.”

The narrator of Amina Cain’s bewitching debut novel is recently married and searching for the meaning of life through art. In her early 20s, in an unnamed time and place, Vitoria has gone from rags to riches virtually overnight, when a wealthy man visiting the museum where she works as a cleaner falls for her and proposes.

Cain takes this bare-bones fairy tale and writes back in extraordinary fashion. Indelicacy is part feminist fable, part ghost story, a book that reaches backwards and forwards in time as it seeks to talk back to literature and art, all the while rendering in clean, crisp prose one woman’s desire to find a place for herself to live as she wants – namely, without guilt.

There is much of Jenny Offill’s “art monster” in Vitoria, though in this instance we see a woman who knows what she wants and is willing to sacrifice the domestic in its pursuit. Cain’s cleverness is to give her the opportunity, a double-edged sword that brings further self-knowledge.


Leaving behind her life as a cleaner to take up the role of wife in upper-class society gives Vitoria advantages – time to write, fancy possessions, money to go to the ballet, access to friends with similar interests. But it also cuts her off from all that she has known before. Personifying this is the figure of Solange, a housemaid who refuses the friendship offered by Vitoria, in a series of tense interactions that culminates truthfully and without drama: “ ‘I’ve never liked you, madame, but truly I had no idea just how much.’ ”

Pressure to conform

There are strong echoes of Daphne du Maurier and  Kate Chopin, and other more literal references to the likes of Jean Rhys, Clarice Lispector and Octavia Butler. In the end the perfectly timed hysteria comes not from a woman but from Vitoria's husband, who just wants his wife to conform: "They feel sorry for me! And now I know why. Please do not listen to my private moments. I am at home and I'll have what I want. You're like an old piece of pie I can't throw away, a very good pie. But I rescued you. You know that!"

More recent touchstones include Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First and Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome. All of these authors write in a timeless way about the confines put on women, by men, by society and, perhaps most interestingly of all, by themselves. In Indelicacy the unspecified era means we can read the story in many ways – miniature Victorian classic, feminist manifesto or a contemporary piece about a woman’s right to choose.

For a short book, Cain’s debut is remarkable in its scope. Desire, guilt, class, female friendship, marriage and art all feel thoroughly examined. Throughout, Vitoria’s self-awareness acts as a guide to herself and the reader: “Maybe I have always needed things to be softened, as things are softened for children. If I were honest about who I am more of the time, I would write more honest things.”

The voice is perfect – intrepid but assured, appreciative and curious, an outsider, in short, a writer: “Now that I have so much time to myself, I wonder at my times of happiness, why I’ve been allowed them, even now when I am lonely. Why I can walk and how even walking, at the right hour, in this temperature or that one, the lights just coming on, or the sky lightening, I am able to love it. How much I am a person.”

Female friendship

Vitoria quickly becomes the type of person you imagine being friends with – honest but tolerant, clever but modest, funny but kind – and indeed female friendship in the novel is held up as a beacon in a world of marital darkness and confusion. As her husband belittles Vitoria’s attempts to write, her friendships with Dana, a ballerina, and former colleague Antoinette, offer hope, encouragement and escape.

Dana, in particular, is a confidante on the art monster within as she explains her fears of not making it in ballet: “ ‘I’m afraid it’s too late,’ she said early on in our conversations. ‘I didn’t start young enough.’ ” Vitoria knows exactly what she means and, crucially, she knows exactly what needs to be said in response.

Indelicacy is a call-out to female artists and would-be artists across the ages.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts