Still Lives is a thriller set in the art world.
A famous artist goes missing on the opening night of her art show. The gallery’s copy editor, Maggie, gets swept up in the mystery and eventually becomes one of several suspects.
Still Lives doesn’t quite get there in the depictions of our main character, Maggie, her ex, Greg, and his new love, reclusive artist Kim Lord. While Maggie reminisces about the relationship she and Greg once had, it’s hard to see the lingering connection in the present day. Greg Shaw seems to be a completely different person from Greg the boyfriend.
That deliciously heart-rendering tension of lost love is nearly invisible here. Flashback alone aren’t enough to produce it.
Kim Lord is our missing artist, but remains elusive throughout the novel. Though this is Maggie’s story, Kim gets short-shrift, represented more as a symbol than an actual person. She’s the symbol of an artist, the symbol of the new girlfriend, the symbol of the enigmatic persona, the symbol of a victim. Never just Kim.
There are some places where Still Lives succeeds, though. Imagery is one of them. In her book, The Ensemble, Aja Gabel writes about music and through words alone, makes the reader hear the melodious sounds of the string quartet.
Similarly, Hummel is able to help us visualize the art using written word. It’s a remarkable thing authors of words are able to do sometimes, making us see or hear the arts so vividly even though we’re using completely different senses.
Hummel shows us the shift in perspective and awakening through Maggie’s reaction to Kim Lords’ art. First, Maggie sees what everyone else sees in these depictions of gruesome murders of women. Most prominent is the breathless glamour of it. These women are beautiful fallen angels, the Black Dahlia, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy.
Their deaths are almost sexily sensationalized; beauties struck down.
But through Kim Lords’ art, Maggie is able to see past it to the heartbreak. The loss to families. The almost anti feminist failure to see these women as actual people.
Indeed, the place that this book succeeds most is in the humanity that it puts behind the murder itself. In many thriller books, the victims pile up like so many dead leaves. They don’t really have a heart and soul and we don’t really have to mourn them.
In Still Lives, though, Hummel makes us feel the loss of the victim. We mourn the disappearance of Kim and the contribution that she had made to the art world. Beyond that though, we mourn the person herself, though we never really got to know her.
Through Maggie, we feel the loss of life, the loss of innocence, the loss of safety.
Published June 2018