Book Review: Negative Space by Zoe Strachan
edited: Thursday, November 21, 2002
By Richard Strachan
Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2002
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An overview of this debut novel
The principle of negative space is used in art theory as a means of obtaining an oblique perspective on an object of study. It is the space surrounding the object rather than the object itself. Negative Space is also the title of the debut novel by Zoe Strachan, an author who has emerged from Glasgow University's new creative writing school, overseen by the veteran triumvirate of Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and James Kelman. The school has already had one notable success with Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room, which was nominated for the Booker Prize last year.
The female narrator (unnamed until the final chapter) has recently lost her twenty-four year old brother Simon to a brain tumour. A life studies model at the Glasgow School of Art, she returns to the city after the funeral and throws herself into a self-destructive regime of heavy drinking and ill-advised, sometimes violent sex with both friends and strangers. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that this self-destruction is less an attempt to avoid coping with her grief, than it is an inability to confront the basis of her relationship with Simon. It is hinted once or twice that the narrator had a suppressed incestuous feeling for her brother while he was alive.
Throughout the novel Strachan uses the concept of negative space to focus on the character's immense sense of physicality. The fact that she is a life studies model is a clever device underlining this further: the narrator is almost entirely anonymous and passive, and it is no accident that she remains unnamed until the final chapter. As a model, she exists only as a body for others to examine: "I might as well be a bowl of fruit or a wine bottle or whatever." As a grief-stricken young woman, she exists only as a body to be put through the paces of menstruation, sex, hunger and drunkenness. It is only after leaving the city for a trip to Orkney, where she joins her photographer friend Alex at an artists' retreat, that the narrator is able to find the means of both emotional and sexual redemption.
Strachan's style is engagingly informal, and she demonstrates good judgement of tone. There is a danger that first-person narratives of self-harm and bereavement can become self-pitying instead. She avoids this by giving equal space to the feelings of anger grief can cause, and to a wry black humour that seems the hallmark of much contemporary Scottish writing. Strachan has a good eye for arresting details and metaphors also. The scenes where Alex and the narrator visit the submerged graveyards of the German fleet that scuttled itself in the Scapa Flow after the First World War are particularly good. This attention to both exterior as well as interior detail, to the rugged beauty of Orkney and the hazy, pseudo-Bohemian atmosphere of Glasgow's pubs and bars, gives the book sufficient balance not to seem too overwhelmingly bleak and self-absorbed. Overall, Negative Space is an excellent introduction to a writer who is sure to become a major talent.