Books

The Painter's Friend by Howard Cunnell: 'Too often drifts into the obscure'

A novel which could have worked, but the plot line was too one-sided and the characters were verging on being dull and even tedious, writes Patrick Maxwell.

Howard Cunnell’s The Painter’s Friend is powerful – though not so much in keeping you hooked as sending you straight into blissful sleep. It gives us the tale of Terry, whose violent past lands him in a community of islanders passing their days in riverside boats, under the eye of an ambitious landlord, Alex Kaplan, eager to regenerate the place and remove his impoverished tenants. Cunnell tries to construct a clear narrative for us: a poor, friendly, bedraggled and ill-treated community fighting against the nasty landlord trying to chuck them out of their houses.

Books 1473
The Painter’s Friend by Howard Cunnell is out now (Pan Macmillan, £16.99) Image: Waterstone

It could have worked, if done with a less tendentious plotline and more interesting characters. Instead, Cunnell makes us endure his own crude prose, with speech marks taken out (too bourgeois, I imagine) and the thoughts and words of the characters seemingly interchangeable. The capacity for an unremarkable sentence is incredible, which makes the at first endearing figure of Terry become ever more tedious, as do the various tales of drunken fathers, drowned sons, and murdered dogs. Cunnell’s writing has an unmistakable clarity, even poignancy at times. But it too often drifts into the obscure and the irrelevant, and it’s ending seems half-baked and bitter.

Spare yourself.

The Painter’s Friend by Howard Cunnell is out now (Pan Macmillan, £16.99)

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing
Books

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing

The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a droll insight into a year of loss
Books

The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a droll insight into a year of loss

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw
Books

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know