Heather is one of my heroes. She has been publishing wonderful, exquisitely written fiction, for adults and children, for the best part of two decades now. Whenever someone has asked me in the past to name my favourite writers, and I listed Heather among them, nine times out of ten they wouldn't have heard of her. But this novel is getting her some much deserved and long overdue attention in Australian literary circles - in fact, it's been shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize. (UPDATE: it won!!)
"I think art saves people all the time."
The Museum of Modern Love seems like such a simple story on the surface, but Heather Rose is in fact threading together many, multi-layered, complex themes and ideas, highlighting that simplicity is often a guise for the most complicated things, art most of all.
Intertwined with a unique exploration of art - what it is, what it isn't, how do you get it to mean something, how does the public's reaction to it influence its meaning and power - is a story about love, loss, grief, heartbreak, betrayal and, most of all, courage.
The novel takes place against the backdrop of a real life event - the three-month performance of 'The Artist is Present' by Marina Abramovic in New York City in 2010. For those who don't know, the piece involved the artist sitting still for 7 hours a day and inviting members of the public to sit opposite her. There was no interaction in the traditional sense - no touching, no speaking - but artist and audience member sat opposite each other and held eye contact, for however short or long a time as the audience member wanted, or could bear. Many found it a very moving experience and came back again, to sit opposite the artist, and to be seen by her.
"She watched as the final hours of The Artist is Present passed by, sitter after sitter in a gaze with the woman across the table. Jane felt she had witnessed a thing of inexplicable beauty among humans who had been drawn to this art and had found the reflection of a great mystery. What are we? How should we live?"
In The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional tale unravels about several people who find themselves witnessing, or participating, in Abramovic's performance and how it affects their lives. The central character is Arky Levin, a celebrated composer of film scores, who is grieving for his terminally-ill wife who hasn't physically died yet but, out of supposedly wanting to spare him grief, moved herself into a care facility and cut off all contact with him. His 22 year old daughter also seems to want little to do with him. Unsurprisingly, Arky finds inspiration is eluding him. Arky somehow ends up at "The Artist is Present" and, over the course of the next three months, watches the performance unfold and various aspects of his life untangle in response.
I loved the insight into the creative process from perspectives other than writing and acting - the visual arts, architecture, music composition. For a novel, it is a remarkable manual for artists. It even opens with Marina Abramovic's "Seven Steps" (which I now have pinned on the wall above my writing desk).
Therefore, for me, The Museum of Modern Love is almost a manifesto. Heather Rose is asking us, as we read, to think about art and how we connect with it. Connection, after all, as shown through the interweaving stories of all the novel's characters, is what matters, and art is one of the most powerful ways we can connect with each other. But it takes courage to connect, because in reaching out, in asking to be seen, we make ourselves vulnerable. That is art too. Making art is an act of courage. Therefore, live (and create art) with courage. That is the key ingredient.
This is an original, beautiful and utterly compelling novel. I never tire of Heather's writing - to me, her words are like fine wine, only improving with time.
"Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless."
But wait, there's more
There were so many other books I read in 2016 that I loved, that gave me great comfort, that made me laugh and think, that have been consigned to shelves all within easy reach so I can refer to them again. Here are a few of them!