Vitória, the narrator of Amina Cain’s first novel, Indelicacy, is afflicted – and at times overwhelmed – by a sense of apartness from everyday human relations. A fledgling writer, she tracks her mind’s peregrinations to points further and further from the people and places around her. She feels most at home in the museum to which she walks almost daily – first as a member of staff on the cleaning team, later when she becomes a patron – in order to take notes on paintings in the hope that they will spark one of her writing trances.
Her friend Antoinette is a fellow museum worker who pines for romance and security: a wealthy husband, a chic wardrobe, and the freedom from having to care for her brother and sister. For Vitória, Antoinette is a rich subject for contemplation and composition. She writes descriptions of what she observes Antoinette doing in lieu of working (often peering into mirrors); she pictures Antoinette’s handwriting “across her face. What she wanted, in cursive”.
But it is Vitória who achieves the life for which her friend yearns. Suddenly, without apparent effort – and providing few details – she is married to a man who comes to the museum to look at paintings by Caravaggio and Goya. Now she has a live-in maid and a nascent case of imposter syndrome. When she voices unease, her husband tells her, “Get bored. You deserve it”. Nevertheless, Vitória pursues activities that she believes will strengthen her sense of discipline. In a ballet class, she befriends Dana, an up-and-coming dancer to whom she is attracted because of her air of intense concentration.
Vitoria is forever drifting in and out of mental focus. Her language is studiedly casual and the narrative proceeds in chapters not more than a few pages long. As she herself admits, “Only once or twice did I say exactly what I wanted, but I kept going regardless”. The pursuit of her writerly art comes at a cost, however. Readers will debate whether Vitória’s final act towards her husband constitutes an act of liberation or one of gross cynicism, but it is this rupture that earns this delicately wrought Künstlerroman its title.