Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Woman Who Drew Buildings by Wendy Robertson

Readers often have the idea that authors decide their own covers. Not so - it's usually the publisher and we get little say in it. Covers are so important in attracting the right kind of reader and I did wonder who Hodder had in mind for this one. It's a very contemporary novel, with a back story in the nineteen eighties, but the cover seems to suggest a forties, maybe even a thirties atmosphere which doesn't honestly represent the character of the book.

I was intrigued by the title of Wendy Robertson's new novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings - and even more by the story of how she came to write the book (which she posted on her blog) about an elderly woman who gave Wendy- "a box of materials about her travels and experience in Poland in the 1980s.

"Mary knew I was interested in the idiosyncrasies of letters, notebooks, images and ephemera that I used to inspire my novels. I was, she said, to use them as I wished. We had long talks about her experiences and the dilemma of using them as inspiration, for what I knew would be - in fact -pure fiction. It has taken me some years to develop my imaginative take on on all this material and all these ideas in order to allow the novel to emerge of its own volition. It became more fluid - easier - when my purely imagined characters got to grips with the material of their true to life inspiration.

The Woman Who Drew Buildings is ...... about a mother and her grown up son - Marie and Adam Matheve - who are estranged; about the romance of buildings; about the world here and now, and the world in the 1980s when Poland was under the unravelling Soviet domination; it’s about out-of-body experiences; it’s about the rejuvenating circles of redemption that can come out of crisis. And it’s about the long-kept secrets and the different kinds of love that glue our lives together."

I found it refreshing that the book was not about the terrible events of the second world war in Poland, but about more recent events in that troubled country's history - the impact of Russian oppression and the rise of the Solidarity Movement. I remember cheering Lech Walesa on whenever he appeared on the television news, his huge drooping moustache making him look like someone's grandfather - the kind of bloke you might meet down the pub, rather than an astute political operator who was going to influence the future of a whole area of europe.

The novel features a group of very different people - Marie Matheve, a detached, self-contained woman with a gift for drawing and a passion for historical buildings. Adam, her bewildered, angry, rather too self-sufficient son. Sharina, Marie's feisty teenage-single-mum neighbour, and the Polish family Marie met on her visit to Poland in the nineteen eighties.

Adam suffers from never having been told who his father was, and also from his mother's lack of ability to bond with him. When the novel opens he hasn't seen his mother for 2 years and on the day of what was to be their reunion, he finds her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. Like John Banville's Infinities, the heroine lies in a coma, hovering in no-man's land, while those around her try to piece her story together and make sense of their relationships. In her flat, Adam finds a box of diaries and drawings and he begins a journey that will lead him towards his own identity.

The book is beautifully structured to create suspense, while delivering just the right amount of back-story. Wendy keeps the reader guessing until the final 'reveal' at the end. The character of Sharina was wonderful! But I would have liked more information on Marie herself - we're given only a glimpse of her own austere upbringing and I would have liked more so that I could have understood better why she found it so difficult to love and be loved.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like the way Wendy sets her books so subtly in the North East - not in some gritty, Catherine Cookson territory peopled by alcoholics and violent abusers - but a softer, contemporary community where neighbours still look out for each other and kindness hasn't been completely forgotten. Wendy doesn't avoid the realities of modern society - what she gives is a balanced view. I like the way her work as a creative writing tutor in prisons informs her understanding of her characters and the fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) glimpses of 'life inside'. Wendy's books are - to quote Pat Barker - 'A blend of accessibility and total sincerity'.

'The Woman Who Drew Buildings' was published by Hodder Headline in September 2009. As part of the Durham Book Festival, Wendy will be on a panel discussing the benefits of original writing for women in prison, on October 27, at the Gala Theatre, Durham.


  1. Really appreciated your thoughtful and insightful review, Kathy. You are right. Marie Matheve's own narrative would have made a novel in itself, so it was a judgement call to show her in the here and now (albeit mostly our of her body), in her crucial time in Poland and her relationship with Jack. My thought here was that we experience her character and how it evolves and changes through the events in the novel. I was (and am) engaged with the idea that the personality changes and develops even in the older years: it is not fixed.
    Hope for us all.

    Thank you again for the suoer review

  2. I really liked the character of Marie - as you say there was enough to double the size of the novel! Real depth.
    X k

  3. That sounds really interesting and what a story behind it all. Also I think Pat Barker may be the one celebrity endorsement I'll always trust.

  4. Just curious ! As our surname is Matheve I wonder why and how you came by to use it as there are not to many Matheve's in the world and they all seem to spring from the same ancestors.
    I sure will have to read this book.