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Self-Portrait With Nothing, by Aimee Pokwatka

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Content note that I wish I had had: the protagonist is related to veterinarians, and there are several graphic descriptions of veterinary procedures to sick and injured dogs. These descriptions have no bearing on the plot but they sure are present. If you don’t want to read about a grieving family you’ll never see in this book again euthanizing their pet, this is not the book for you.

The tone of this book is extremely detached and abstracted from events, including vivid ones like the above. Pepper (the protagonist) spends most of the time trying to avoid having any emotional reaction whatsoever. Which is understandable in context (though not all of her actions ever were for me), but it still adds up to a particular reading experience. One of the drawbacks of an eARC is that I’m never sure whether the formatting is true to the final layout, but if it is, the texts between the protagonist and her husband–one of the closest things a book has to a major emotional thread–are weirdly and sometimes confusingly formatted.

So what’s this book about? Well, eccentric artist Ula Frost is rumored to paint portraits of people’s alternate selves, from alternate universes. How does this work, and why would people believe this claim? That is not a topic this book concerns itself with. Instead it focuses on Frost’s disappearance and relationship with Pepper, and the ramifications of both in the rest of Pepper’s life.

I finished this book largely because I wanted to see where Pokwatka was going with the speculative conceit in a very literary novel, but honestly where she went with it was not worth the dog stuff for me. I’m perfectly happy with meditations on loneliness and isolation (I read Scand Lit for heaven’s sake), but this was a fairly middle-of-the-road instantiation of that kind of novel, without particular insights into the artist’s life, possibility, or other topics that the framing might have suggested.

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