Artist in Residence by Simon Bill

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Artist in Residence by Simon Bill

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Florence Holmes
Reviewed by Florence Holmes
Summary: Artist in Residence presents a fascinating and self-deprecating dialogue between art and neuroscience.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 335 Date: May 2016
Publisher: Sort Of
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1908745576

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The nameless protagonist of artist Simon Bill's first novel is almost instantly dislikeable. He's a slob with an alcohol problem whose endeavours in the art world appear lackadaisical and who seems to have behaved questionably to his ex-girlfriend Susan. In his antihero, Bill gives himself an uphill struggle to keep the reader turning pages, let alone engage their sympathy. And yet, Artist in Residence is a funny, thought-provoking, informative read which is all the more enjoyable for the mental and emotional demands it places on the reader.

The premise is simple: the protagonist is employed as an artist in residence at a swanky neurological institute in London which still smells of fresh paint and has a comedically bad receptionist. This residence is despite an appalling interview and no clear agenda on the antihero or his employers' minds as to what he will accomplish. An attractive patient, Emily, makes the prospect more appealing, as does enthusiastic young neurologist Ben. The protagonist, who paints abstract art on 9ft canvases and claims he's an atrocious draughtsman, sets up the most basic of drawing workshops. He buys the institute's patients paper from a DIY shop, and dumps some of Ben's enormous collection of brains on the tables.

Within fifty pages, Bill starts to include digressions on various neurological defects and the workings of the brain. Some readers might find these explanations, some of which are (short) chapters in themselves, an irritating distraction from the main plot. However, for anyone with any interest in medical science, they form a fascinating addition which not only inform but encourage the reader to question assumptions they had unknowingly possessed. For example, The Blind Man has lost the part of the brain which allows you to know that you can see – You'd think that seeing and knowing you can see were the same thing, but it isn't so. He can see, but only unconsciously.

Bill has obviously researched thoroughly. Using Ben as the mouthpiece, explaining various patients' conditions to the protagonist, prevents them from feeling forced or clunky insertions. In almost all cases, there is enough information to intrigue without so much as to turn into a science lesson, and the use of Monet's paintings as examples is cleverly inclusive. The institute's labyrinthine corridors, down which the protagonist continuously gets lost (not helped by his near constant drunkenness), and its position at the top of one of the hospital's tower, combine to make it seem a brain-like structure itself, through which the reader navigates. Bill retains balance in the novel, preventing the weightier subject matter from becoming too serious with the antihero's shambolic personal life and a cast of minor, comedic characters, such as Simon and Selina, the institute founder's children, who walk around with dollar signs in their eyes.

This is Bill's first foray into fiction but I hope it won't be his last. The crossover of art and science is fascinating, his use of humour is ingenious and his storytelling masterful.

Further reading suggestions: In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric R Kandel and The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe

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Buy Artist in Residence by Simon Bill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Artist in Residence by Simon Bill at


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