The Tattoo Artist
By Jill Ciment
(Pantheon, Hardcover, 9780375423253, 224pp.)
Publication Date: August 23, 2005
List Price: $23.00*
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Jill Ciment’s writing has been called “luminous . . . sad, affecting” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times) and “rich in observation and insight” (Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times).
Now in her new novel, her third, Jill Ciment turns her eye to a painter’s world in the early years of the twentieth century and tells the story of an American woman, an acclaimed artist who’s been stranded on an island for thirty years.
The novel opens in New York in the 1970s. Sara Ehrenreich has returned to New York to much fanfare—Life magazine has arranged for her return and is doing a big feature on her. Sara had been living on a remote speck in the South Pacific for three decades, and she has returned to the city of her childhood and early adulthood, a city made totally different by thirty years of technological and social change.
As Sara experiences all of the sensations of entering a new world, the novel flashes back to tell the story of her life, of herself at eighteen, a Lower East Side shopgirl meeting the man who changes the course of her life—Philip Ehrenreich, a banker’s son and revolutionary, an avant-garde artist who
hasn’t made art in years.
Philip introduces Sara to everything from Dada to Marx, from free love to automatic drawing, from trayf to absinthe. Philip sees her art as his chance to create by proxy. They fall in love, marry, and form a collaboration, and by the late 1920s, she takes her place among a small group of famous American Modernists.
As the Depression hits and his family money and her corps of collectors vanish, Philip and Sara are forced to embrace the proletarian life that he had romanticized and that she had fled. In desperation, they sell what is left of his prized collection of Oceanic masks, and their lives are forever altered when one of Philip’s patrons hires him to collect masks in the South Seas.
Sara and Philip book passage on a Japanese ship that drops them off on Ta’un’uu, an island famous both for its masks and its full-body tattooing. The ship that was to pick them up never returns, bewilderment turns into panic, then resignation, and, finally, to a peace neither husband nor wife has known before. When the Second World War breaks out months later and Philip and half the men of the island are killed by Japanese soldiers, Sara turns to her painting for salvation. She learns the art of tattooing and begins the painting that will be her masterpiece—the tattooing of her own body.
A beautifully written novel, powerful in its portrayal of the world it creates and the ideas it is taken up with—ideas of immortality through art, and of the here-and-now-ness of life and experience.
Jill Ciment was born in Montreal, Canada. Her books include two novels, Teeth of the Dog and The Law of Falling Bodies; a collection of short stories, Small Claims; and a memoir, Half a Life (available in paperback from Anchor Books). She has been awarded two New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Ciment is a professor of English at the University of Florida. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.