Howard Cunnell’s The Painter’s Friend is powerful – though not so much in keeping you hooked as sending you straight into blissful sleep. It gives us the tale of Terry, whose violent past lands him in a community of islanders passing their days in riverside boats, under the eye of an ambitious landlord, Alex Kaplan, eager to regenerate the place and remove his impoverished tenants. Cunnell tries to construct a clear narrative for us: a poor, friendly, bedraggled and ill-treated community fighting against the nasty landlord trying to chuck them out of their houses.
It could have worked, if done with a less tendentious plotline and more interesting characters. Instead, Cunnell makes us endure his own crude prose, with speech marks taken out (too bourgeois, I imagine) and the thoughts and words of the characters seemingly interchangeable. The capacity for an unremarkable sentence is incredible, which makes the at first endearing figure of Terry become ever more tedious, as do the various tales of drunken fathers, drowned sons, and murdered dogs. Cunnell’s writing has an unmistakable clarity, even poignancy at times. But it too often drifts into the obscure and the irrelevant, and it’s ending seems half-baked and bitter.
The Painter’s Friendby Howard Cunnell is out now (Pan Macmillan, £16.99)