Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2018

Paint Your Wife (2004), by Lloyd Jones

Lloyd Jones is one of my favourite Kiwi authors, and when recently the NZ Book Council tweeted for suggestions for The Best Ten, he was one of mine.  Which reminded me that I hadn’t read Paint Your Wife, one of his books that I bought after discovering Mr Pip (2006) which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker.  I’ve also read Hand Me Down World (2010) and The Book of Fame (2000), and you can find my thoughts about them here.)

Set in the 1970s with flashbacks to the postwar years, it’s the story of a declining town and its idiosyncratic community, which gives the novel a universality in these times when country towns are declining all over the world.  New Egypt used to have a paint factory but now it doesn’t, and so the task ahead is to revitalise the town with ‘projects’ to lure in the tourists and provide not just employment but also a sense of hope to the community.

As the book begins the mayor Harry Bryant has had some success in persuading a cruise ship to drop anchor, but it’s a polite disaster.  New Egypt has nothing much to offer the cruise passengers and when they sail away everyone knows there isn’t going to be a repeat visit.

But the town does have something to offer.  And it comes about because of a quirky artist called Alma— who during WW2 acquires a bevy of models for his portraits by forgoing payment for his rat-catching jobs, and because of a construction job to rival the building of the Pyramids when one of the husbands comes back after the war and suspects his wife of dalliance with Alma.  (As well he might).  George has heard Alice complain about a hill that blocks her view of the sea, and with mattock and wheelbarrow he decides to move it as proof of his love for her.  Yes, the entire hill.

Harry narrates this tale with self-deprecating humour and an understanding of human nature, not to mention an uncanny ability to know what’s going on behind the scenes, even before he was born.  He used his payout from NE Paints to buy a second-hand shop called Pre-Loved Furnishings and Curios which gives him access to the hopes and dreams of his community, sometimes with devastating effect as when a couple sell him their entire house contents and then the promised job in Australia falls through. The recovery of their mattress which has already been sold is a droll episode, but it also introduces a couple of new characters, one of whom will break your heart with pity.  But also significant is the shop’s collection of soft porn (Playboys and the like) in the back room, where he and the other men indulge their private fantasies, longing for women who don’t exist while blind to the real women in their lives.  It is Alma who teaches them not just to look at them, but also to see them.

Through this absorbing tale of a community in a slow-moving crisis , Jones shows us the misjudgements that people make about one another.  When a young couple drift into the town, Harry writes off the young man as a crafty ne’er do well, but he turns out to be much more than that.  George misjudges his wife when he thinks that a muscleman display of moving mountains will rekindle love.  Harry misjudges his own son in London, and he doesn’t like it when his wife Frances misjudges an innocent interlude with the improbably named Ophelia.

It’s a sunny book, one that is alert to human failings but also celebrates the power of the arts in our lives.  And it’s nice to know that resurrecting a town in this way is not a fantasy, as we see here in Australia with towns reinventing themselves as creative hubs.  Here in Victoria, the creative communities from Woodend, Castlemaine, Kyneton and Daylesford have revitalised their declining towns, so much so that house prices rival those in Melbourne!  Are there similar creative hubs outside of Sydney and other cities?

PS It’s not a great cover, I know.  The cover of the editions you can buy now are much better.

PPS Claire from Word by Word has written a superb review which you can see at her blog.

Author: Lloyd Jones
Title: Paint Your Wife
Publisher: Penguin, 2004, 296 pages
ISBN: 9780143019060
Source: Personal library


  1. Several of the titles you mention by him are familiar. Must add him to the list.


  2. The book sounds a little different as well as creative. I like the idea of small towns being revitalizes. We actually have a couple near me that seem to have done so successfully. Trying to move an entire hill sounds like a neat plot device.


    • I like it too. I hate to see small towns dying, and the countryside being emptied of people.


  3. Some country towns have to die. Farms are getting bigger (and families everywhere are smaller) not just because of mechanisation, but because so few farmers’ children want to be farmers themselves. And of course in the country as in the city, people prefer big shops to small. Still, everywhere I go I get the impression that towns of around pop. 2,000 are at least holding the line, with beautification projects, small business, innovative tourism initiatives, and most recently, renewable energy plants.


    • Yes, and I don’t think we should be subsidising marginal farms or the towns that surround them. I also think that if larger farms offer economies of scale for the consumer, than that’s ok. I’d rather that than see farmers’ incomes squeezed the way they are by the supermarkets and their ridiculous discounts on farm produce. OTOH I don’t want to see the countryside emptied of population. Serious efforts at decentralisation are long overdue.


      • No. Farm subsidies just further enrich wealthy farmers and agri businesses. I always intended to live in a country town but, you know, kids, grandkids …


      • Yes, Lisa, and I can’t help thinking from the few examples I’ve seen that some of these small country towns can accommodate asylum seekers – they then create more jobs (keep schools open, more customers in shops etc), get work themselves, generate more tax, etc. A bit of help is needed at the start to get this cycle going but it can happen with good will, and a desire to survive, in these towns.


        • Yes, there’s been some great initiatives here and there, hopefully we will see more of them.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I hadn’t heard of this one, when I saw it pop up on your blog the other day. I’ve only Read Mr Pip and Hand me down world, both of which I liked. It sounds really interesting – I’m always thinking about the misjudgements we make (and how often those misjudgements tend to assume the worst view rather than the best.) And yet, you say, it’s a sunny book. Sounds like a nice change!

    BTW I think more and more rural towns are revitalising themselves – finding something unique they have and are building on that. Sometimes it’s history rather than the arts – though sometimes they go hand in hand – but it is so encouraging to see. The good thing is that being country towns and not having had a lot of money they tend not to have pulled down old buildings and so, as Mr Gums and I travel around, we are seeing increasing work in these town on refreshing and restoring old buildings. It’s delightful.


    • Perhaps a topic for a Whisperings?


      • Hmmm … I’ll have to find the literary angle but yes, that could be a good idea to put into my little list of ideas.


  5. […] Paint Your Wife, by Lloyd Jones […]


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