The Painter’s Friend by Howard Cunnell: One of the books of the year

Cunnell’s style is matchless: intimate, dark, sincere, wry and exquisitely beautiful

Howard Cunnell. Photograph: Massimiliano Donati/Awakening/Getty

Howard Cunnell. Photograph: Massimiliano Donati/Awakening/Getty

Sat, Jul 10, 2021, 06:00


Book Title:
The Painter’s Friend


Howard Cunnell


Guideline Price:

The first thing that hits you with The Painter’s Friend is how exceptionally beautiful Howard Cunnell’s writing is at sentence level, so much so that you consciously pace yourself while reading in an attempt to draw out the experience for as long as possible.

Cunnell’s latest novel follows Terry Godden, an ageing working-class painter who has spent his life pushing against the establishment while being pushed around by it. Things start to fall into place for Godden when he moves to a remote island inhabited by other outsiders who were gradually pushed from traditional society. When the island’s wealthy owner begins the process of ousting the residents to create a tourist destination, the suffocating hostility of gentrification comes back into Terry’s life.

Cunnell’s prose ebbs and flows with the rhythm of its protagonist moving through his environment. Godden’s life on the island and on the houseboat are contrasted with memories from his past, his exclusion from the art world, his relationship with his grandmother and both their struggles with addiction. The water itself becomes as prominent a character as Godden, as the passages recounting the minutiae and nuances of the river gleam like sun on the sombre water of the protagonist’s introspection.

“Winter rain still filled the muddy hollows between the trees, and the churned-up ground, the reflective surface water, was a darkly shining honeycomb, its solidity uncertain every time I put my foot down. The trees were blue columns. The river was silver movement between the trees.”

Comparisons can be made to Adam Mars Jones, Jon McGregor, David Hayden and Ali Smith and in the story itself echoes of John Healy’s The Grass Arena are evident early on and confirmed in the dedication at the end. But Cunnell’s style is ultimately matchless; intimate, dark, sincere, wry, and exquisitely beautiful.

Cunnell’s novel is an unyielding examination of the relationship between art and money, asking how it is possible to be an artist in a for-profit world and why so many are at best indifferent (at worst eager) to the erosion of the working-class voice from society unless presented in some palatable and detached way that doesn’t threaten capital. The Painter’s Friend deserves prominence and has earned its place among the best books of the year.