MY DEATH, by Lisa Tuttle
Since her husband’s untimely death, the unnamed narrator of Lisa Tuttle’s feminist novella “My Death” has not been able to work or write. Instead, she has isolated herself in their house on the west coast of Scotland.
On a trip to Edinburgh to see her agent, who she hopes will help revive her flagging career, she wanders into the National Gallery. There she has a chance encounter with one of her favorite paintings, “Circe” (1928), by the fictional artist W.E. Logan, the portrait’s “pale face stern and angular” and “intimately familiar to me.”
The dramatic back story is familiar to the narrator as well. Circe — that is, Helen Elizabeth Ralston — had been Logan’s lover. Her teacher at art school, he’d “kept” her in a flat in the West End of Glasgow.
Soon after sitting for “Circe,” she had leaped from a window, surviving the fall — though badly injured. Then, after Logan’s mysterious and sudden blinding, Ralston had run away to Paris, never to see him again.
Ralston would become a celebrated writer, her novel “In Troy” — the “green-backed Virago classics” edition — a formative influence on the narrator. (The passing references to Carmen Callil and Angela Carter are just part of the novella’s delightful blending of fact and fiction, realism and fantasy.)
But biographical information about Ralston is scarce, and published accounts of her relationship with Logan and subsequent jump have the predictable misogynist tinge: She is doomed to be forever cast as the obsessive, over-sexualized young woman, the muse. “Helen’s experience, her interpretation, her story, was nowhere.”
In the flush of a renewed spasm of art love, the narrator decides to embark on telling Ralston’s side of the story: by writing her biography.
Ralston, it transpires, is still alive, though very old, and willing — too willing? — to meet. Arriving at her home, the narrator finds the older woman has her book on the shelf. And in some notebooks in Ralston’s archive, she discovers mysterious references to her own life. But how could Ralston possibly have access to that deeply private information?
Tuttle’s work to date has been categorized as horror, or speculative fiction, and “My Death” deftly navigates between conventional storytelling and the uncanny feeling that things are perhaps other than they appear. The theme of the alternate feminist narrative is actually integrated into the form of the novel itself, in a final impressive loop-de-loop that I did not see coming and that has left me scratching my head.
At the heart of the text is a mysterious island off the coast of Scotland, Achlan, an important pagan funeral site of which Ralston painted a watercolor she called “My Death.” The image of the island, under scrutiny, reveals itself to be, in fact, Ralston’s answer to Courbet’s explicit painting “The Origin of the World”: “The center of the painting, what drew the eye and commanded the attention, was the woman’s vulva: All the life of the painting was concentrated there. A slash of pink, startling against the mossy greens and browns, seemed to touch a nerve in my own groin.”
Tuttle carefully tracks its impact on the narrator, the conflicting feelings of desire and outrage and embarrassment and respect: “I struggled to understand my own reaction,” she admits.
The novella is just as richly ambiguous, though perhaps less difficult to confront. Delicious and short, with not a word wasted, “My Death” asks much bigger questions than its size would suggest.
Why are we predestined to love certain writers? What is the personal algorithm of affinity? How do we keep our creativity and curiosity alive in the face of loss and hardship?
In the end, “My Death” is not about death at all, but about life after catastrophe: how art revives us, and how writers live on in their readers.
MY DEATH | By Lisa Tuttle | New York Review Books | 105 pp. | Paperback, $15.95