There is a wonderful meme that encapsulates Jeremy Vine’s debut novel better than words ever could. The meme in question, referred to as “How do you do fellow kids?”, is an image of Steve Buscemi as an adult trying to get down with the youth. Vine’s book is a well-constructed, albeit old-fashioned, love story, and it is curiously garnished with the seeds of contemporary themes, which sometimes ends up coming off as an attempt at being relevant to younger, politically savvy audiences.
The narrative is a paint-by-numbers love story – if the painting in question is a surreal melting-clock-gallimaufry of weirdness. Half-sisters Ginny and Meredith find themselves in Franco-era, sun-scorched Spain, where the great surrealist Salvador Dali is busy extracting the latest idea from his subconscious: a painting titled Christ of Saint John of the Cross which now lives in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Taking inspiration from the story of Russell Sanders, the American stuntman and acrobat, and how he posed for Dali’s painting (a feat far more impressive than it seems, given the fact that Jesus hangs downwards from his arms in the painting) Ginny falls in love with Adam, an American waiter and amateur diver, only to compete for his attention with the pernicious personal assistant Siobhan Lynch.
Vine sticks to a classic love story structure, which can make for a predictable read. Though, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ right? But the sporadic peppering of culturally relevant topics, race, homophobia, and mental health give the book an uneven tone. Meredith’s mother is from the Caribbean, the relevance of which is rarely apparent. Siobhan Lynch casually drops homophobic remarks about Dali, referring to him as “a complete and utter homosexual show-off.” Whilst this is as subtle as Dali himself in signposting to the reader that Siobhan is not to be liked, it feels slightly crude to use the seriousness of such a topic as character development. In instances like these, it feels as if these topics have been shoehorned in, and it does feel jarring in what presents itself as a conventional love story.
With that said, Meredith’s condition and mental state is given more development. We learn that she has a plethora of undiagnosed conditions that would have been treated with a leucotomy if not for her sister’s intervention. This is also where the novel’s unique voice emerges: the description of Dali’s painting’s mystical aura that acts as an epicentre from which the events revolve around, and as a sort of catharsis for Meredith, a lifelong fan of modern art. It is a testament to the power of art and Dali as an artist who was able to penetrate the inner sanctum of human consciousness. Vine does an admirable job of capturing the eccentric Dali, the man who threw an anteater at someone whilst being interviewed on the Dick Cavett show and thought that Yoko Ono was a witch, on page.
I also commend Vine’s thorough editing; he keeps the story flowing with a consistent pace and fluency that makes for a pleasurable read. He is clearly a capable writer, but whether he is a literary man might still be up in the air. While The Diver and the Lover might not bring anything particularly new to the table, Vine’s first novel does show potential as a writer. I hope he will dive (pun intended) into more daring literary territory for his next one.
Image: Andy via Flickr