Young artist Artemisia Cavelli wakes up in a hospital in Kingston, New York; parts of her memory are missing but her sense of humor is still very much intact. She’s been struck by lightning, but that may be the least of her problems. As she tries to piece both her memory and career back together, there’s no shortage of people standing in her way, namely the insidious Nuala Gwilt, a New York art dealer described as the “terrorist in chief of postmodern art” who seems almost programmed to ruin the lives of people like Artemisia. And then there are the boys: Artemisia is a beautiful girl, and she is never without male admirers, even in recovery.
So begins Djelloul Marbrook’s impressive novel Artemisia’s Wolf, a book that successfully blends humor and satire (and perhaps even a touch of magical realism) into its short length. It’s an engrossing story, but what might strike the reader most throughout the book is its infusion of breathtaking poetry. This refreshing emphasis on language and description should come as no surprise, since Marbrook is already the author of two award-winning books of poems, including Far From Algiers, winner of the 2010 International Book Award for poetry.
The Hudson Valley depicted in Artemisia’s Wolf is rich with both austere natural beauty and obtuse loneliness. Marbrook, born in Algiers but a longtime resident of the valley, perfectly captures the region’s unique charm. Consider the following passage where Artemisia playfully offers her reply to Redmond Hazard, a vain doctor who calls her on the telephone, to find out where she is:
Okay, just this once. I’m thirty-two-hundred feet up on Slide Mountain. There’s three inches of snow disguising an ice slick on the ground, so I’m still wearing my instep crampons. The sun looks like a cooling ember, but I can still see the Esopus Valley. The wind bonsais the balsams up there, so the ledge looks like a Japanese stone garden. There’s a hundred-and-eighty-foot drop off the ledge onto the forest. The plastic windows of my octagonal blue tent are blood-red. The wind is rising behind me and when I turn into it I see a snow squall. It looks like a whirling dervish, stepping from one rise to another. Night is dropping around it like a stone... So that’s where I am, Doctor Hazard, up there on Slide Mountain thinking I’ll never again have to think anything anticlimactic like this. (77)
But this novella is more than simply a poetic exercise. Artemisia’s Wolf takes us deep into the ugly underbelly of the art world in New York and the Hudson Valley, a world where jealousy, not talent, often decides the lives of budding artists like Artemisia. The book also serves as a stunning rebuke to notoriously misogynist subcultures like the New York art scene, showing us just how hard it is for a young woman to be judged on her creative talent alone.
The character of Artemisia is brilliantly drawn: she’s funny and smart, and the reader empathizes with her plight throughout. Her razored sense of humor rubs other characters the wrong way, and we absolutely love her for it. But perhaps the book’s most stunning achievement is the sharply drawn character of Nuala Gwilt. She is a woman who has somehow survived for decades in the male-dominated art world, and she certainly has the battle scars to prove it. More than merely a one-dimensional villain, she displays her flesh wounds along with her fangs, so her contempt and jealousy of Artemisia come as no surprise. This is no Cruella de Ville: by the end of the story Nuala rises above stereotype, even though she spends so much of her life trying to be seen (and feared) as just that.
Rich with layers of mythology and symbolism, Artemisia’s Wolf is Marbrook’s first novel, although readers may already recall his name from a long and illustrious career as a reporter and editor at such places as The Baltimore Sun and Washington Star. Artemisia’s Wolf is published by Prakash Books in India, which speaks to Marbrook’s worldwide reputation as a painstakingly precise wordsmith.
-- Tommy Zurhellen, Marist College