‘Sometimes I wonder, if I had known that it was going to take me fourteen years to paint this painting of the Crucifixion with Douglas as Jesus, and what it would take for me to paint this painting, would I have been as happy as I was then?’
Susan Alison MacLeod, a Glasgow School of Art graduate with a dark sense of humour, first lays eyes on Douglas MacDougal at a party in 1988, and resolves to put him on the cross in the Crucifixion painting she’s been sketching out, but her desire to create ‘good’ art and a powerful, beautiful portrayal means that a final painting doesn’t see the light of day for fourteen years.
Over the same years, Douglas’s ever-more elaborately designed urine-based installations bring him increasing fame, prizes and commissions, while his modelling for Susan Alison, who continues to work pain and suffering on to the canvas, takes place mostly in the shadows. This Good Book is a wickedly funny, brilliantly observed novel that spins the moral compass and plays with notions of creating art.
Huge thanks to Will at Renard Press for sending me a copy of This Good Book in exchange for an honest review.
I’m going to have to do it: THIS is a damn GOOD BOOK (sorry, not sorry). It really is something special, and I will try and tell you why, although to be honest, I don’t want to be too specific, as I think a lot of the ‘frisson’ comes from not knowing too much about it before you start reading. I devoured it in one sitting, staying up way past my bedtime, as I just had to keep reading. That’s a pretty good sign.
What I can tell you is that you won’t have met a character quite like the narrator of This Good Book before. Susan Alison is a creation of literary genius – she is somehow straightforward and enigmatic at the same time both blunt and sharp, dry-humoured and naive all at once. She isn’t endearing or empathetic, but my god, she is fascinating. There is also something almost mesmerising about the rhythm of the dialogue, with the repeated “And I said,” “And he said,” “And I said” structure; it chugs along like a runaway train, and it is impossible not to get caught up in the hectic whirl of conversation.
This book is full of tricks and delights, playing with structure and language, and yet managing to avoid being gimmicky. I gradually realised that the paragraph breaks had one word repeated either side, worked into the text so naturally that I had to flick back and make sure that I wasn’t inventing it. It’s a small thing, but it is an example of how the narrator AND the author play with the form of the novel, a subtle acknowledgment that this is a carefully constructed work of art, which of course links back to the main themes of This Good Book.
I think what I love most about this book is that it is a hugely intelligent and philosophical examination of the big question: “What is Art?” without being at all pretentious – on the contrary, it is loads of fun, and I laughed a lot. It packs in so much – religion, morality, unlikely friendships, the act of creation – and manages to be playful without being frivolous. There is a darkness that creeps in, too, but I won’t spoil anything here, except to say that the ending left me reeling. I feel very strongly that books like this are why we NEED indie publishers willing to reach outside the mainstream – it is a very exciting thing as a reader to discover a book that feels entirely new. I can’t recommend this book highly enough – you honestly won’t have read anything like it before.
This Good Book by Iain Hood is published by Renard Press and is available to purchase here.