CLARA, the protagonist of Dani Shapiro’s compelling new novel, “Black & White,” is a victim of child abuse, although the violations perpetrated against her are not the kind commonly associated with the term. Instead, her childhood is marked and her adulthood marred, because she is the daughter and muse of a photographer whose fame and fortune ride on a series of artful but obliquely risque images of young Clara. Those who are familiar with the work of Sally Mann can imagine the photographs of the fictional Ruth Dunne -- haunting and suggestive shots of Clara that illuminate not only the innocence of childhood but also its potent and barely submerged sexuality.
With economy and psychological acuity, Shapiro explores what it means to grow up under the gaze of such a mother -- at once loving and manipulative, appreciative and self-absorbed. At the novel’s outset, Clara is summoned back to the New York City of her childhood, a place she has avoided for 14 years, to tend to her dying mother, whom she has not seen or spoken to for just as long. Clara, scarred by the violations of her mother’s work, has married and exiled herself to a bucolic island off the coast of Maine, where she is married and a mother to a young daughter. Having run away from home at 18, Clara has done everything in her power to escape her mother’s influence and the exposure, the unwanted celebrity and the ultimate feelings of shame that her mother’s photos have brought upon her.
Ruth is a narcissist writ large, a diva in her work and personal life. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how absorbed she is in her art and success to the detriment not only of Clara but also of another daughter, Robin, who feels unloved because she wasn’t the chosen subject of her mother’s fixation. Ruth’s marriage staggers under the weight of her obsession with photographing Clara. Drawn in broad strokes, Ruth never quite emerges from caricature to become a palpable and satisfyingly complex character. But Shapiro elegantly and movingly portrays the troubled relationship young Clara has with a mother who uses her for her own artistic aims.
The photo sessions, which Shapiro describes brilliantly, are at first seductive. She teases out the complicated emotions on both sides of the camera and illuminates the mistreatment happening in the name of art. Young Clara feels proud because she “has never had her mother look at her for so long.” But the adult Clara remembers those same images being made public at auction where “in the front of the room, on an easel -- as well as projected on a twelve-foot screen -- there she was. Her mouth around the lizard, her eyes huge and glistening, her leg raised on the edge of the tub, her private parts, as Ruth liked to call them, splayed open. The soft smell of the summer day, the innocence of a three-year-old girl, who wanted to please her mother so much she would do whatever was asked of her.”
Ultimately, the sessions become so troubling that young Clara imagines herself somewhere far away. She recalls the “numb floating -- not altogether unpleasant, really. She can leave the shell of her body behind like those cicadas she’s seen littering the ground in Hillsdale. She can shrug out of her skin, the same way she now shrugs out of her denim jacket.” The photos, which show Clara in various states of nudity, take on even more significance as Clara enters adolescence and the suggestive images mirror her burgeoning sexuality. When her classmates are old enough to interpret the provocative imagery of the photographs, Clara is devastated.
As Shapiro has demonstrated in her earlier work, most notably in the novel “Family History,” she is nimble with structure, and she plays out the story line deftly, creating the urgency of unraveling mystery in what is essentially psychological drama. Slowly and deliberately, she lays the building blocks so that we come to understand the depth of Clara’s abuse. By the time we learn of Ruth’s final betrayal, we cannot help but understand her daughter’s resulting despair.
Shapiro is as interested in mothering and its unintended consequences as she is in the issue of the artist parent trolling her family for subject matter. Her exploration of Clara’s relationship with her own daughter, Sam, reveals a different kind of abuse. In an effort to protect Sam from being harmed by Ruth, Clara has not only kept the two apart, but also has kept Sam from knowing anything about her grandmother. But Sam yearns to know the past her mother keeps from her and is just as injured by Clara’s inability to accept that history.
The novel’s success in illuminating Clara’s troubling childhood is not mirrored in the present-day portions, which describe Clara’s struggle to come to terms with her past and her mother on the eve of Ruth’s demise. There is a predictability to the adult Clara’s emotional journey and the way in which Sam brings about the ultimate rapprochement between Clara and Ruth that deprives the reader of a real sense of discovery. The author charts the emotional disturbance of her characters’ past so precisely and astutely that one wishes for the same uncompromising storytelling to infuse the novel as a whole. Still, the ideas Shapiro grapples with resonate, and she raises trenchant and enduring questions that resist easy answers. She forces us to confront how artistic obsession and parenthood make complicated bedfellows, and how children are victims to parental obsession, even the kind that is meant to protect a child. When the boundaries between parent and child are fluid -- made so by a powerful love or the desire to make art of one’s life -- how do we know when the lines have been crossed? *