Controller is the debut novella by Sally Ashton, and the latest offering from up and coming digital publisher, Dead Ink. And you should buy it and read it right now if you enjoy good literary fiction.
A young traveller finds herself in Northern Spain, working as an artist’s model. As her relationship with the artist deepens and darkens, her experience of the city, those around her and the nature of art and desire change.
I was drawn to this book, at least in part because it explores the relationship between an artist and his model; a subject I am interested in given the fact that I have worked as an artist's model. The situation that arises in an art studio/ artist's house is a unique one, and I was curious to see how Ashton approached it.
The story is narrated by the model, chronicling her first appearance in a Spanish art class, to her last sitting in Eric's (the artist's) apartment, and his subsequent exhibition of work.
From the outset I was struck by how utterly absorbing the writing is; the first person narrative is immediate and visceral. I felt as though I was experiencing the physical pain the protagonist does. I felt her nerves in the first art class; I tasted her vomit, and saw her clammy skin. Ashton writes with a startling physicality that is absolutely relentless, particularly in the scenes in Eric's flat.
The style reminded me of the best stream of consciousness narratives (Joyce, Woolf), and I don't remember when I last felt so connected to a book.
The story itself is dark, painful, and fantastically erotic. I'm talking real eroticism, not sub-standard literary pornography. Ashton explores the relationship between artist and model, as one centred on the power and degradation. The sexual tension the model experiences is all part of the control Eric yields over her.
And yet, this isn't a story designed to give you cheap thrills. It is far cleverer than that. The model has a relationship with Bea, another young woman escaping her previous life. This is the only legitimate union in the novel, and one that seems to spring from their desire for comfort, when men treat them only as objects for their gratification, whether physical or artistic.
So there it is, a thoughtful and unique piece of literary fiction, and one that has certainly marked Sally Ashton as a writer to watch. I can't wait for her next piece of writing.