Book Talk: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Talk: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCulloughBlood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Narrator: Xe Sands
Length: 3 hrs, 52 mins
Published by Listening Library on May 15, 2018
Genres: Historical
Format: Audiobook
Source: Publisher
AmazonThe Book DepositoryAudible

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father's paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome's most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough's bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia's heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia's most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman's timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

TBH, I almost missed out on Blood Water Paint. I’d seen it around a little bit, mostly because I used to post Cover Snark, so I was constantly digging around for forthcoming books. However, I immediately dismissed it because the cover bored me, the title very much didn’t interest me, and it’s a verse novel, which, for me, is a kiss of death. Only because someone I follow on Goodreads read and loved it did I reconsider. And, of course, bless audiobooks, because they make verse novels doable for me. Blood Water Paint blindsided me with feminist rage and empowerment.

Don’t be misled by the brevity of this book, because it packs a mighty wallop in those few words. Clocking in at just under four hours on audio, Blood Water Paint is shorter than the average middle grade novel, though there’s nothing middle grade about the content. McCullough manages to accomplish something amazing in this understated way that really just makes everything more intense somehow.

After the death of her mother, Artemisia Gentileschi started working for her father. Initially, she was grinding pigments, but, once he discovered her talent, he also had her painting his commissions. With zero credit, because obvs women should never get credit for jack shit. He also forces her to be his live model for nudes, which is gag-inducing but not the worst thing that’s going to happen to Artemisia. Trigger warning:View Spoiler ».

Artemisia dreams of painting how she wants to paint, rather than the shallow depictions done by the male gaze over and over. Her descriptions of the way that men paint women are accurate and sharp. I think the thing with this book, and the reason all of the descriptions of sexism hit so hard, is that everything’s distilled down to its essence, stated clearly and succinctly (though also beautifully). The comparisons of the way that Artemisia wants to paint classic scenes, like Susanna in her bath, compared to the way men paint them clearly illustrate a male view versus a female one.

Artemisia’s story is interwoven with tales told to her by her mother before her death: those of Susanna and Judith. Now, I actually did not know these stories, because I am not up on the Torah/Bible, but I suspect these take a feminist view of those tales. Given my reticence for anything Biblical, I was amazed how much I loved even these parts of the book. You can feel Artemesia’s mother’s anger, and you really sense the way she’s using what limited means she has to arm her daughter with a sense of her value and strength in a male-dominated, unfair, bullshit world.

Susanna and Judith’s tales are subjects Artemisia is working on, but their stories end up dovetailing, in some ways, with Artemisia’s own. This is done deftly and with restraint, however; there are parallels, but it’s nothing overly obvious or forced. Artemisia even ends up talking to them and imagining their responses, which could have felt absurd or crazy but really just felt right in the context.

Major props to Xe Sands on the narration too, because her reading was a huge part of my experience of this book. Audiobooks can really turn a novel up to eleven if the right narrator is paired with the right book. Sands reads Artemisia like her teeth are almost always gritted with fury. The emotions are so close to the surface, and they feel so real and so intense. I felt everything along with Artemisia, and it’s rare I get major feels for non-romancey things.

Blood Water Paint is a novel that’s frustrating and rage-inducing and beautiful in equal measure. It’s absolutely not a book I would have expected to love, but holy shit this book is so good. Feed the fires of your anger at the world right now with Artemisia’s anger. We need some of her strength, and Susanna and Judith’s too.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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