Emily Rhodes

Seeing and being seen: Wet Paint, by Chloë Ashby, reviewed

When Eve gets work as an artists’ model and barmaid, her life begins to mirror her favourite picture – Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’

Seeing and being seen: Wet Paint, by Chloë Ashby, reviewed
Chloë Ashby. [Sophie Davidson]
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Wet Paint

Chloë Ashby

Trapeze, pp. 336, £14.99

In this arresting debut novel we follow 26-year-old Eve as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her best friend Grace. Flashbacks punctuate the present day of Eve’s London life, gradually revealing her role in the grim circumstances of Grace’s death.

Eve lives in a flatshare with a patronisingly well-meaning couple who give her cheap rent in exchange for cleaning. The awkward dynamic is made worse by Eve’s casual kleptomania (helping herself to Karina’s lipstick, necklace, gloves and dressing gown) and by the inappropriate leers of Bill ‘who likes to start conversations when I’m wrapped in a towel’. At the restaurant where she works as a waitress, Eve is thrown by the shock of seeing Grace’s parents, slaps a customer who gropes her leg and promptly loses her job. Her backstory is loss-filled too: her mother ‘left when I was six days short of my fifth birthday’; her alcoholic, neglectful father is ‘slowly disintegrating’.

Every Wednesday, Eve finds solace at the Courtauld (Chloë Ashby’s alma mater), where she spends hours looking at Manet’s celebrated painting ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’, in which the barmaid, Suzon, stares out implacably at the viewer. We learn that this was Grace’s favourite picture and, while they were studying art history at Oxford together, ‘Suzon stared out at us from grimy laptop screens more times than I can remember. We’d gawk at her for hours, trying to read her mind. Now, I fix my eyes on hers.’

This exchange of gazes is one of many in Wet Paint, a skilful, absorbing novel that is so much about seeing and being seen. Time and again, Ashby focuses on Eve’s position as a young woman exposed to predatory men, highlighting explosive moments when the threat implicit in a male gaze is realised as unwelcome, devastating touch.

When Eve gets two new jobs, as a life model and as a barmaid, it becomes clear that Ashby is presenting a modern-day parallel to Manet’s Suzon. Luckily, as well as the predatory men, there are other characters – friends, old and new – who look at Eve too. These friends also look out for her, and look beyond the difficult past experiences that have shaped her in order to see her potential. Eve wonders about Suzon: ‘Is she at a pivotal point in her life but unable to pivot – life on pause, numb mind, sticky feet?’ Ashby suggests that, with the help of her friends, our barmaid will manage to unstick her feet, pivot and progress.