I look up. A man is staring at me. Slowly he kneels. I reach out. He’s no illusion. I can touch him and he doesn’t disappear. I study his face – a foreign face, smiling and frowning at the same time, as if he is about to cry. He sees something in me. Is it my pain? My guilt? He has a hand on my shoulder; it feels like a gentle wake-up call.
– On the Canvas of My Soul (Locations 234-236)
From Amazon: Finding your soulmate can end life as you know it.
Zen, a struggling landscape painter, watches her abusive boyfriend plunge to his death from a balcony at their New Zealand home. Being free from his beast-like sexual appetite gives her triumph… and a little guilt, since she did nothing to save him.
Marcus and Dean are a married couple, each with their own dark pasts. And the idea of becoming parents is something they can’t agree on.
Yet Marcus and Zen are inexplicably drawn to one another, despite Marcus’ marriage to Dean. On her canvas Zen paints Marcus as the epitome of beauty. To her burning heart he is a lover with tender masculinity and graceful passion. With him she learns to heal and explore her sexuality in a new light.
A confession reveals a sinister reason behind Marcus’ desperation to become a father. Meanwhile Dean, enraged by the affair, plots to keep Zen out of their lives whatever the cost.
Is Zen willing to overlook Marcus’ dark past? And with Dean closing in on her, will she risk it all to stay with the man her soul hopelessly longs for?
The writing style for this book was very confusing at times because it was a first person narrative that employed second and third person writing, seemingly at random. There was a lack of consistency, which changed the tone of the narrative without warning.
Dean is doing better, he tells me, and begs me to understand that he has to be by his side for the next few weeks. I reassure him I understood. (Locations 2167-2168)
I think that this might have worked much better as a third person narrative with extensive direct speech. In addition to the change in grammatical person, there were missing words along the way, which can easily be fixed with another round of editing/beta reading. That said, this is a fast read with a good pace.
In terms of the characters, I have to admit that I didn’t like a single one of them. Zen is a thirty year old who thinks and often behaves like someone a decade her junior. Marcus is rather insipid, and forgettable. Poor Dean goes from zero to a hundred real quick, starting as a third-wheel, becoming non-entity in another country to beating a woman, with no build-up. All the characters felt juvenile, and under-developed. Even Zen’s best friend, Shay, who thinks that love conquers all but has a serial-cheater of a husband, annoyed me:
[Shay] ‘Well, I can’t live without sex. Not just for the pleasure. It gives you… some sort of binding force. You become helpless, sometimes irrational, because all you want to do is be with him. When the sex is good, all is forgiven and he becomes your knight in shining armour again. I mean, who doesn’t want to be with a man who pleases you?’ (Locations 742-745)
Not that I disagree with everything in the excerpt above, but I think that a good, healthy, long term, committed relationship needs more than “sparks” and good sex. This is very obviously not a healthy relationship, and to an extent this is acknowledged in the book, but then is also has this to say:
‘The kids adore their dad, you know; he’s very good. It’s just that he can’t help it, it’s like a disease! Somehow I believed him when he said it just happened,’ Shay says. (Locations 3702-3703)
The writing style and characters are one thing but the book has far deeper issues that I felt were badly handled. The first is the way in which the narrative dealt with sexual assault. Neither Zen nor Marcus ever refer to sexual assault as such. It is hinted at, even though the reader knows exactly what happened, and there is no excuse for it, the words “rape”, “consent” and “sexual assault” are never actually used.
I tried reading the book from a survivor’s perspective (being one, this was easy to do), whereby acknowledging the truth behind the act is extremely difficult to do. Using the words can be impossible for some survivors, especially in the initial aftermath of the attack. This perspective was entirely undone when Zen talks about her deceased ex; the man who raped her (possibly on multiple occasions from the sound of it), a man who thinks that women should be in the kitchen and beholden to their men; and had this to say:
Ed was not a bad person. By which I mean he wasn’t a cheat or a woman beater. He was a man who helped old ladies cross the street and gave you a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day – but that old lady had better keep up with his pace, and you’d better figure out what he wants in return for each of those roses. It was a game of give and take in its true sense – but on his terms. Both his arrogance and his vulnerability could bully me into giving in. (Locations 525-528)
In all fairness, this is said very early on in the book but the character doesn’t really seem to realise that this is not the definition of a “not bad person”, as the book progresses. She partially acknowledges that he was abusive and kept her in an invisible prison but this ultimately feeds into other issues that I have with the book. The character is meant to be exploring her sexuality but she is, at times, terrified of sex. Not once does she do the psychologically healthy thing and get help from a therapist or psychiatrist. She clearly has PTSD, but this is never acknowledged.
‘We can do it another way… the way you like it…’ I say, ready to kiss his hard cock.
He moves slightly away. ‘It’s all right, Zen.’
He sounds understanding, but how does he really feel? Sexual dissatisfaction – never a good thing for any man, gay or straight. Men don’t wait – well, I’d put Marcus as an exception so he’ll wait possibly a week, a month. Not forever. (Locations 2882-2886)
The above excerpt comes from more than 70% into the book, where Zen and Marcus have been having an affair/relationship quite some time, and her sexual assault by Ed is years in the past. Yet these are the character’s thoughts on men. This perception does not change, for Zen, in the book. And her PTSD (nightmares, sleepwalking, hallucinations and dissociation) happen from the beginning to the end of the book. However, the idea that “the right man” will fix you is reiterated time and again, as if this mystery man will fix all that ails her without the character having to do any introspection and emotional hard work.
He nods a couple of times. ‘Have you stopped blaming yourself for killing Ed?’ Surprisingly I have the answer. ‘No. But I blame myself a little less every time I’m with you.’ (Locations 2361-2363)
He looks at me, his palm on my cheek – that you’re the reason touch. At this moment I want to surrender. Is it too good to be true? Or have I finally found the one? (Locations 3187-3188)
No, you need to get yourself together and well, and healthy. I especially didn’t like the rhetoric around “gayness” and what it is to be gay. It felt like the book was trying to repeat over and over again, in different words, that for the right woman, a gay man can choose not be gay. That is not how sexual orientation works.
In summation, there isn’t a single healthy, stable character in this book. It disseminates and reiterates ideas that are unhealthy about mental health, relationships and behaviours. It portrays unhealthy relationships as worth fighting for and desirable, and I haven’t even covered the issues I have with the fact that Zen is a hypocrite. You cannot have an affair with a married man, for years, which leads to the dissolution of his marriage and the other party trying to kill themselves, while justifying your behaviour that entire time, but then have this to say about your bestie’s cheating hubby:
[Zen] ‘Why isn’t Richard with you?’
[Shay] ‘He cheated on me again.’
I hug my best friend as she weeps on my shoulder.
‘What are you gonna do?’
‘I don’t know. I thought I’d go away for a while, clear my head – hence this road trip – and maybe I can make the right decision when I’m back in Dunedin.’
‘Is he still with that woman?’ (Locations 3689-3694)
YOU ARE THAT WOMAN! I am genuinely worried about the messages that this book is putting out there to women (young and older), especially woman who are emotionally vulnerable and looking for something to validate poor chooses when it come to relationships and behaviours. . This isn’t love. It’s obsession and bad decisions.
My rating: 2½/5
On the Canvas of my Soul is available on Amazon.
This review was requested by the author.