Francis Smithson reviews Sue Hubbard’s emotive novel focusing on the life of artist Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Set against the backdrop of the darkness of Germany 1933, Girl in White begins its narrative with the character of Mathilde, a young woman pregnant by her married Jewish lover. Fleeing to the remote village of Worpswede, previously a commune for artists, she begins the emotional journey of unravelling the life of her mother – the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Paula Becker is not a well-known artist, nor was she much admired by many of her contemporaries. Reading this novel I have no doubt you will wish she was. Hubbard, having studied the events of Becker’s life through her paintings and letters, obviously believes this is a story that needs to be told and how right she is. Using knowledge she has gained from her study of Becker, as well as, admittedly, a little of her imagination Hubbard’s skill here is to literally bring Becker back to life. The depth of the narrative reveals the tortured and lonely soul of Paula as she struggled to gain the revered status she desired. The reader feels her pain and sacrifice as she fails time and time again to reach her own ridiculously high standards, yet her unwavering belief in her potential to get there shows an admiral level of self-courage and belief. Often lonely, often brave and often selfish the reader gains real insight into Becker’s ambitious and obstinate mind, desiring her success as much as she does.
This novel is an incredible testimony to the tortures and struggles many artists see necessary to put themselves through.
Any artist reading this book will feel a great amount of empathy with Paula. I particularly recommend this to those with an interest in the art world as it captures perfectly the romance and excitement of the industry while sympathetically capturing the dark emotions, poverty and confusion that often follow alongside. With particular nostalgia it delves into the Expressionist’s community of isolated and beautiful Worspswede; thus emphasising the alienation of many of the Expressionist poets and artists and the strong bonds they formed between one another. The use of characters such as Rilke and Rodin shows how the novel is a great exploration of this great cultural movement.
Hubbard’s use of the entirely fictional character of Mathilde creates a deeply emotional resonance within Paula’s story as it is slowly revealed in alternating chapters. As the reader delves into Paula’s secrets and thoughts so is her daughter – now just as vulnerable and lonely herself. Paula’s unsettled mind and the conflicting society of Worpswede become reflected in the unsettling Germany that now exists and the uncertain future that awaits Mathilde. What is never called into question though is the strength and courage of the Becker women. This is an incredibly nuanced and intense work and one which I strongly recommend.