Sherwood Forest has been reimagined for the 21st century in Howard Cunnell’s powerful new novel. On a heavily forested island in the middle of an unnamed river, a community of outcasts and outsiders sought refuge from mainstream society, some living on rickety riverboats, others in tents and shacks.
Several are contemporary counterparts of the legendary Sherwood Foresters. Little John is Adam, “a blond giant whose green eyes shone on his bruised face,” and Maid Marion, Alexandra Kaplan, daughter of the island owner, who tries to thwart her father’s business plans. Kaplan himself is the sheriff of the last days, living in a “crenellated” mansion, with an army of bailiffs, security guards and police at his command.
Robin Hood becomes Terry Godden, the narrator with pursed lips of the novel, who declares: “There is not much I can say about myself. What he reveals is that he was raised by a heroin addict grandmother who died when he weighed only four stones, when he was sixteen. He then hit the road, living with anarchists, travelers and ravers, before being both imprisoned and severed.
While working on a construction site, Terry uses salvaged materials to create works of art, which attract the attention of Sir Evelyn Crow, a famous art dealer. Crow promises him an exhibition, but when lack of interest forces him to move the exhibition to a smaller gallery, Terry threatens to kill him. The ensuing scandal destroys the artist’s reputation and he flees to a converted lifeboat on the island.
An atmosphere of violence permeates this place, which is expressed graphically in the wounds of the people. Adam not only has a bruised face, but “a huge raised purple welt” on his chest. Gene, a bereaved father, has “wild, barely healed herringbone cuts. . . inside his left arm. Stella, fleeing domestic violence, has a badly placed broken elbow.
Islanders unite to fight Kaplan’s attempts to both raise mooring rents and evict squatters. Terry paints their portraits on massive panels, which they hang from a bridge to publicize their protest. Stella, claiming that this is a community art project, gets permission from the town hall for their installation, while remaining skeptical that they are “going to change the world with a few images.”
The creation and consumption of art are the major themes of the novel. The irony is that Terry’s panels can prove the Islanders’ salvation, but only because Crow reappears in his life and assesses their monetary value. Cunnell carefully leaves the outcome open, as he does Terry’s spell when he is unintentionally involved in an act of sabotage.
Cunnell’s handwriting is crisp and vivid, the very colorful verbal images perfectly suited to an artist narrator. Unlike Terry’s vast palisades, the author adopts an almost pointillist technique, constructing descriptions from discreet sentences, such as: “The miners. Six aged men. Black is fine as thin as paper. Worn heel shoes. The most sustained portrayal is that of Terry’s adopted dog, Red: the most beautiful canine characterization I can remember.
My main complaint is that the novel’s social concern seems fabricated. Most of the characters’ problems do not stem from systemic injustice but from broken relationships: the inadequate parents of Terry and Adam; Stella’s abusive marriage; The death of Gene’s son. Likewise, Terry’s belief – who carries the weight of the whole novel – that by hanging the portraits on the bridge, he offers a rare chance for the faces and stories of the excluded and dispossessed to be seen and heard. is not just sentimental but false. .
Patronizer of Terry, Crow says “the time has come for fringe art.” The truth is, that moment has already come: what was once considered marginal is now common. The outlaws left the forest and entered the citadel.
The painter’s friend by Howard Cunnell, Picador £ 16.99, 288 pages
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