The title of Amina Cain’s first novel, Indelicacy, proves an ironic accounting of the author’s work. While the book features vulgarities—a woman marrying for money, a maid’s affair with her master, a very funny description of two bombastic writers as “male worms eating from a toilet”—its language and fragmented structure are gauzy and fine.
Indelicacy begins with the first-person narrator, Vitória, describing her life in the country as she attempts to write. She has left her wealthy husband, who didn’t support her creative aspirations. The rest of the novel follows what might be called a divorce plot—the antithesis of the Victorian era marriage plot. It traces how Vitória transitions from working as a cleaning lady at an art museum to living as an unhappily married wealthy woman to orchestrating a separation from her husband that will leave her financially comfortable enough to pursue her craft.
Along the way, we meet a trio of supporting characters: Antoinette, Vitória’s coworker at the museum; Dana, a dancer Vitória meets in ballet class; and Solange, maid to Vitória and her unnamed husband. They serve as foils to the narrator. Unlike Vitória, who chooses autonomy after abandoning a marriage of convenience, Antoinette elects to marry a poor man and start a family. Dana finds quick success with her physical performance, while Vitória struggles with her intellectual endeavors. Solange embraces sexual opportunism after Vitória stops sleeping with her husband. Through these characters, Cain sketches both opportunities and limitations available to women in this fictional universe.
Indelicacy advances from one observation to the next, short chapter after short chapter—Cain structures her novel in bursts that last for between one and six pages. She weaves through time, occasionally interrupting her chronology with passages of Vitória’s writing or descriptions of her single life in the country. As Vitória notes after watching a dance performance, “I enjoyed this coming together, this breaking apart. I wanted to do it in my writing.”
The real magic of Cain’s slim novel lies in its restraint and precision. In just over 150 pages, Cain spins a spare tale, or contour of a tale, about a woman learning to write. Vitória offers a positive assessment of such an aesthetic strategy: “Why is empty space such a comfort and a relief?” she asks after viewing unfinished paintings. “It’s not because I project myself there; it’s because I can’t. It shows me my projections, but they haven’t left my mind. Empty space remains empty, always. And for a little while a small part of me can be empty too.” Whether you read this approach to art as generous and virtuosic—or as confused and half-baked (Where do you draw the line between negative space and incompletion?)—will likely determine your response to the book.
Cain builds a quaint, fairy tale-like mood as she drops into the text mentions of carriages, ballet classes, a painting of a witches’ Sabbath, a puppet show, a burgundy dress, a baptism, dinner by candle light, glass chandeliers, a “garden thick with palm trees and birds-of-paradise and hibiscus and jasmine,” and earrings that resemble “drops of blood.” With its soft atmosphere and appreciation of the unspoken, the book evokes the filmmaking of Sofia Coppola, Joanna Hogg or Claire Denis.
Vitória sums up her own artistic compulsions, which so often dovetail with the concerns central to the larger novel. “I’m writing about myself looking at paintings,” she tells Solange. “And sometimes at plants.”
“Is there an audience for that?” Solange asks. When Vitória expresses doubt, her maid asks what makes her write.
Cain writes: “‘My soul,’ I said boldly. I didn’t care how it sounded.”