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Book review: The Art of the Body by Alexander Allison – cruelty versus compassion

This bold, unflinching debut about power and dependency explores the relationship between a disabled art student and his carer.

Sean is in his early 20s, an art student, and lives with cerebral palsy. It’s the cerebral palsy that gives him an “accent” – that’s how Janet, the young woman employed to care for him, describes it. Janet has learned to distinguish “biscuits” from “business” and, as the narrator of this skilful debut novel, she translates Sean’s experience for us just as she navigates the world for him. But there’s an unsettling air of detachment to her own voice that allows her to describe Sean’s pained body and the unlovely work of care – baby wipes, bibs, suppositories – with an unflinching precision.

Is it really possible to provide care and feel detached? And what happens to your own life when it is put to the service of another? These are some of the difficult questions that Alex Allison compels us to consider. The answers are not easy. Finely written and thoughtfully devised, this is also a disquieting and unsettling read about the balance of power, cruelty and compassion in the relationship between a carer and their charge.

Sean is studying at Central Saint Martins. He lives alone but requires support both at home and at college. Janet was once an art student too, but her ambitions were thwarted. Now Sean’s needs command almost all of her attention: from rolling him awake and winching him upright, to propping him up in hydrotherapy classes and posing him for his art projects. He commands our attention too: a captivating figure, even as he struggles to move and speak. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that while Sean’s condition immobilises him, it is Janet whose life is really in stasis.

As the title suggests, The Art of the Body is concerned with physical experience – and for the most part, that means the repetitive cleaning, wiping, feeding, massaging and manoeuvring that Janet has to undertake on Sean’s behalf. She records the bare physiological facts of his body so dispassionately that it is almost brutal: the shallow breaths that only reach “the top of his lungs”, the smooth feet “untested by weight”, the faeces that are “caked into his crack and hair” at the end of the day. She leaves him to clean his own crotch, “which he does with a curled stabbing motion that I can’t watch”. Is it the pathos of the gesture that she cannot bear? Or a repulsion that she betrays in turning away?

Janet attends to Sean’s needs but she also steals his petty cash. Every morning, she diligently takes him through a physiotherapy routine that is more arduous for her than it is for him, but at night, in the privacy of her flat, she dreams of torturing him, inflicting terrible wounds. The great merit of Allison’s novel is the intelligence and clarity with which it inspects their relationship. It never threatens to lurch into tragic romance or heroic suffering; there is, instead, constant questioning and recalibration. When Sean’s family life suddenly changes, the evasive Janet is forced into acknowledging her own dependence.

Allison writes unobtrusively, setting up illuminating parallels and gently guiding the reader to unexpected understanding. Sean needs Janet in order to achieve his artistic ambitions, but it is Janet who is living vicariously through him. Janet administers Sean’s physical therapy, but she is also his tormentor, exercising her will over his incapacitated body. The conditions of Sean’s life mean that privacy is impossible for him – but it is Janet who finds Sean invading her private life. When her boyfriend, Jordan, reaches for a condom, the smell of latex makes her think of Sean.

Jordan is a former champion gymnast – his athleticism contrasts with Sean’s disability – and Janet’s parents are undertakers, so she possesses an unusual understanding of bodies. For one of his projects, Sean has Janet pose him as the lamb of Francisco de Zurbarán’s 1640 painting Agnus Dei. Her surname is Lamb. Some of these devices feel laboured, but mostly this is a novel that works hard at thinking about how differently the human form can be contorted and manipulated.

Allison has an eye for artistic affectations, nicely lampooning Sean’s simpering art school teacher and an enthusiastic critic from Frieze magazine, but he allows Sean’s passion for art to ring true. The book reflects both on how art can represent the body and how it makes itself felt through our bodies. Visiting Tate Modern, Sean makes Janet stare so hard at a Bridget Riley painting that she grows dizzy and has to clutch his chair for support. Who is dependent on whom?

• The Art of the Body is published by Dialogue (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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