A portrait of the artist as a raging ego
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What's the dynamic when two artists share a home - and what if one of them has a monstrous ego?
That's the question posed by Charlotte Mendelson's latest novel The Exhibitionist - longlisted for this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.
Lucia was a struggling single mother when she got together with older, charismatic art school teacher Ray Hanrahan. Thirty years on she's raised his children in their crumbling north London home, supported him and stroked his ego, while supressing her own career ambitions.
As this spectacularly dysfunctional family gather for Ray's comeback show, it emerges that Lucia and her children are nursing plans to escape Ray's bullying control.
"I was interested in how with creative couples almost always when they are married say 'x is terribly supportive' but when they are divorced or he dies you find out the absolute bedlam that has been taking place," says Mendelson.
"I've heard and seen so many examples over the years."
Mendelson who lives in north London with her novelist partner, insists the gaslighting narcissist isn't always a man, nor the underdog "a woman in a heterosexual relationship".
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"It's not just about controlling men it's about controlling people. I have certainly known female Rays. In all couples it seems someone is expected to put their art on the side, or there's a group assumption that one can get away with more than the other.
"There is always a strange tension if both of you are trying to create, and often with artists, the very bad behaviour of someone like Ray is excused, when he is really an arse."
The novel's propulsive, melodramatic narrative takes in unwanted pregnancy, mental and physical illness and affairs - tracing the effect of "a very controlling egotistical person" on one family. Daughter Jess copes by leaving; sister Leah has internalised the bullying by becoming Ray's handmaiden; and Patrick is a fragile, frightened soul living in a caravan in the unkempt garden.
"What is it like to be the wife the son or daughter of a Ray? There's the appeaser, the one who thinks they can make him happy, the one who tries to get away. The emotional logistics, marriage, plus creativity leads to a terrible mess - people are much madder than we think. You wonder 'how can they live like that?'
"Some have said: 'My God Ray is so awful why doesn't she just leave him?' But it's a novel about the effects of emotional abuse. It's all about Ray's charisma and humour, that kind of bullying fun that you know you need to be on the right side of. Who hasn't met at least one Ray?"
After visiting Barbara Hepworth's studio in St Ives, Mendelson says "it was so deliciously full of mess and tools and materials that I wanted to write about a sculptor." And as readers root for Ray's comeuppance, Lucia gets a phone call that could change her life.
"I was thinking all the time I was writing about that Human League song 'Don't You Want Me' and how he couldn't believe that she wasn't still willing to be his protégé," muses Mendelson.
"It's not about revenge but about how can we get Lucia away? What combination of lust, good luck, talent and hard work will make her separate from him? Sex desire and love is so powerful. After thinking she was lucky that such a marvellous person as Ray would want her, realising someone else desires her is a key moment."
Mendelson perfectly captures a bohemian arty corner of North London and says she likes writing about her area
"I like writing fiction in specific places, I like to be able to visualise it, but this pattern of toxic behaviour could be anywhere - they could live in the country or in a different part of London even."
Does it ultimately matter whether Lucia is more talented than Ray?
"Of course she's more talented, but really it's about hard work and a bit of talent. He is entitled, spoilt by early success and swans about having a lovely time being Ray, while she's working hard. I am a big believer in pushing yourself and not assuming things should just happen."
Charlotte Mendelson discusses The Exhibitionist at the Proms at St Jude's Lit fest at Henrietta Barnett School on June 26 at 11.30am. Visit www.promsatstjudes.org.uk/2022-litfest