A portrait of the artist as a frustrated, obsessive, desperate young woman

A detail of a sculptural component of the Ceramic Staircase at the V&A Museum in London
A detail of a sculptural component of the Ceramic Staircase at the V&A Museum in London - Alamy

In 2012, the Goldsmiths student Hannah Regel – alongside her peers Saira Harvey, Thea Smith and Jala Wahid – launched SALT., a magazine of new writing designed to study feminism as a contemporary ethos rather than a “sidelined” historical object. The magazine spanned seven years and 10 issues, and the fifth, titled Anti-Work, gives something of its flavour: in the issue, Regel and co argue that merely to live is a form of “labour”. They’re seeking to explore a “melancholic dissatisfaction” with the state of the world – and then to “collectively use feelings which would otherwise cripple and consume… [as] something productive, forceful and even hopeful.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that Regel’s debut novel, The Last Sane Woman, features dusty dossiers, unfulfilled dreams and stifled creative women, and that its central character, Donna Dreeman, a ceramicist, bounces between contracts and fixed abodes in a series of self-destructive and downhearted moves. From settled country-life in Stone to waitressing in Covent Garden, all while obsessing over being let into the Royal College of Art, her only stability comes through the letters she writes to her childhood friend, the “sensible” Susan Baddeley.

We read Donna struggling, over 12 years, with “the world of clay, where everything is ruled by fire and force and where the images in my head get pushed out through my fists into something real”. And when global institutional success doesn’t come as easily as she might have liked, suicide becomes an alternative possibility: “as if all along I’d been trudging up a sand dune with sand in my shoes, staring at the tall grass, and then someone comes along and lifts me up so I can see over the top and stare at it: the sea and the waves crashing in. What a possibility! To give up and join it.”

Yet there’s another layer to the story. These words are now some 30 years old; Dreeman is long dead. Her collected letters have been given to the Feminist Assembly, a small and underfunded archive in Waterloo. Here, they’ve been discovered by another unsuccessful artist, the listless Nicola Long, a “Zone Three nursery nurse” with a BA in Sculpture.

Having prematurely given up her own ceramic career, Nicola spends her days “wiping yellow Frubes off the faces of children” or lying on the linoleum floor of a disabled toilet, spending her 20-minute breaks listening to the “lame sputters” of an apricot air-freshener. She arrives at the Assembly hoping “to read about women who can’t make things”, or, more specifically, “about what might stop a person from making things, making art… Like money… or time.”

Hannah Regel, author of The Last Sane Woman
Hannah Regel, author of The Last Sane Woman

Regel’s overarching metaphors are clear. Here, characters become forms of creative practice, their lives an experiment in setting process against outcome, “work” against “anti-work”. Spending all her free time engrossed in someone else’s blunders and missed opportunities, allowing Donna’s life to absorb her attention, Nicola finds solace, even rapture, in being moulded by someone else’s imperfect hands, rather than being the one who’s doing the moulding. And as her compulsion grows, as she fills her own mind with Donna’s listlessness like “thick, completed concrete”, she, in turn, quits a string of jobs and relationships. Soon it looks unlikely that she’ll emerge from the kiln unscathed.

Yet Regel’s prose – teetering between sweet and caustic – can seem to undercut these deeper, more contemplative moments. Instead, it accentuates Donna and Nicola’s all-or-nothing attitudes, their narcissistic desire for recognition or ruin. The letters themselves, Nicola thinks, are “stationery stationery: pastel envelopes with floral designs, foliage and sunset stripes. Pink and cream and pasty yellow. They seemed almost to giggle, inside their stale grey box.” Meanwhile, Instagram posts filled with “swelling” hearts and sickly dinner-party chatter are still considered measures of success.

Are The Last Sane Woman’s protagonists really engaging in radical forms of alternative expression, as SALT. magazine might attest? You might wonder, if so, why the novel’s climax sees Nicola attempt to break into the industry with a major retrospective of Donna’s work, for the validation she feels they are both finally owed, and to publicise her one-sided connection with a dead woman. Such larger conceptual questions are often raised – but they’re never fully satisfied. Still, for all that, Regel offers an unnerving and playfully pithy world, one in which dread is almost a fetish, tragedy an aesthetic, failure a form of entertainment.

The Last Sane Woman is published by Verso at £10.99. To order your copy for £9.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books