Longlisted for 2022 Dublin Literary Awards
Elizabeth MacKinnon moves to Saint John New Brunswick in 1939 to find inspiration for her poetry in the bohemian life of the city's central peninsula. Swept up in the vibrant society of the city's poets, painters, potters, dancers, and playwrights, she finds herself joining their struggles to make sense of making art in a time of economic depression.
Inhabiting the lives of the artists who find themselves in the port city taking refuge from the Depression, Lay Figures explores relationships between art and lived experience, artist and subject, artist and audience, and between margins and centre, and traces the development of a young female writer against the backdrop of the Depression and early war years in Saint John. In a story that couples bitter despair with exuberant triumphs, Elizabeth and her fellow artists make life-changing discoveries about politics and social responsibility, desire and betrayal.
About the author
Mark Blagrave was born and raised in Ontario, and has lived in New Brunswick. His first novel, Silver Salts, was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Novel and the 2009 Margaret and John Savage First Book Award (Atlantic Book Awards). His short stories have been published regularly in leading Canadian literary journals, including The New Quarterly and The Fiddlehead, and his plays have been produced professionally and in university theatres. Formerly a professor at Mount Allison University, Blagrave now lives in London, Ontario, where he is Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Huron College.
Excerpt: Lay Figures (by (author) Mark Blagrave)
Staring at the outside of William's locked apartment door, its abstract shapes of flaked paint a sharp contrast to the painstakingly drawn figures teeming over the walls inside, I think I should try to find Henry. If anyone knows why William decided to cover the walls of his apartment with indelible images and then leave, Henry will. Everyone tells him everything—and what they don't he finds out anyway.
The cat yowls from behind the door of my flat. I can hear it as I climb from the landing below. It needs to be fed. In a maneuver practiced over thirty months, I unlock my door and sweep with my foot as I enter, to make sure it doesn't escape. William used to tease me about keeping it indoors, made all the predictable jokes about the metaphor of the locked-up kitty. Only he didn't use the word kitty.
I drop a mound of mashed chicken liver on a saucer. William used to badger me about that, too. He said the cat ate better than most people we knew. It didn't matter to him that the butcher slipped me the chicken livers for free on a Saturday when he hadn't found buyers for them that week. You couldn't win that kind of economic argument with William. The inequity he could see in front of him was what troubled him, not the background factors that might actually explain it. I listen to the cat's motor purring as it vacuums up the liver, enjoying it much more than any person I know would. If William were still around, I would descend the stairs and cross the hall to make exactly that point. My typewriter dares me to join it across the room and get some work done. Instead I grab my coat and leave the flat, kicking the cat away with my foot as I close the door.
Princess Street is deserted, probably thanks to the rain. I glimpse the back of the Capitol across the street and consider going to see a film (it doesn't matter what, anything to get lost in), but there is no change in my pockets. And I should be saving every penny. I head west toward the harbour and down the hill to Prince William Street, where I decide to break into William's studio. Seeing his apartment makes me wonder what other bizarre legacies he may have left.
"Just as great pressure creates diamonds, the Great Depression squeezes some ambitious, cosmopolitan artists back into their hometown. WWII looms and Saint John, with its contrast of old-money gentility and proletarian grit, seems an unlikely place to create art that will shine in the world outside. But the artists find that the city ignites their talents in ways that Paris, New York, and Chicago didn't. A bohemian procession of writers, models, actors, directors, and artisans are drawn to the energy that radiates from the studios, where the artists work, socialize, engage in sexual intrigues, and—with urgency and without apology—argue the purpose of art in a world where commerce and war rule. In Elizabeth, Mark Blagrave places the perfect participant/observer in the centre of this turbulent cast of characters." —Costas Halavrezos, host of the "Book Me!" podcast.
"Lay Figures is a richly imagined novel set in Depression-era Saint John, where the vivid world of artists comes to life, their loves and losses shaping what they create. With war changing the destinies of those around her, the young writer Elizabeth MacKinnon searches for a subject that will allow her to realize her potential. Her exploration of what inspires art, for herself and for others, makes for a very compelling read." —Anne Simpson, author of Speechless
"This book is for all readers—those who love characters, those who love history and those who simply want to be transported to another time and another place." —Arabella Magazine (St-Andrews-by-the-Sea, NB)
"Novels about the lives of artists rarely get it right. Mark Blagrave's Lay Figures is a rich, enormously entertaining exception. Like Atwood's Cat's Eye or Corbeil's In the Wings, Lay Figures presents the lucky reader with both the glamour and the grit of art making while staying true to the plain, very un-romantic fact that artists are not born, they are made. The questions and challenges faced by Blagrave's artists are eternal, and more vital today than ever. Saint John is Canada's Atlantis: a once thriving cultural hub whose contributions to Canada and the world are too often forgotten. Lay Figures brings the era and the city that was back to vibrant, sexy life." —RM Vaughan, poet, essayist, and author of Bright Eyed
"Blagrave's richly descriptive prose recreates the period and all the rivalries, joys and disappointments that fuelled the lives of his characters." —Telegraph-Journal (Saint John, NB)