Each story in this, Hubbard's first collection of short fiction is nominally centred around art. But what truly links the pieces herein is the themes of longing, loss and melancholy, and a sense that not even an intimate knowledge of the beautiful and the sublime can protect one from the daily tragedies of life.
While several of Hubbard's protagonists ultimately find redemption, it is always at a cost to themselves; the academic who gets away with cheating on his wife, but not without being fleeced by his mistress; the widow who realises that she is content alone, but only after a disappointing sexual encounter with a man she meets on the internet; the middle-aged divorcee who has an affair with an immigrant you enough to be her son and who she regards with distant amusement.
With Hubbard's background in art criticism and poetry, it is not surprising that her writing is painterly and vivid. She lingers on colours and textures, edges and scents: "Mummy grew tomatoes, red gems, that what she called them… I remember that special smell when she watered them in the early evening after a day of sun."
The collection is quiet, almost to the point of defiance, but in its understated, delicate descriptions of the mundane, Rothko's Red has an acute power.
The New Statesman
She certainly fashions an arresting opening in which Adam and Maggie gaze at a large magenta Rothko that prompts him to utter a paean to her genitals. But Adam is just the first in a long line of disappointing men blundering naively or selfishly through Hubbard's stories. Inability to commit, unreliability, unfaithfulness - just some of the character faults her protagonists encounter in male partners.
Other recurring motifs are mildewed books and broken frames, silvery stretch marks, women washing under their breasts and their armpits, doing up ruins in Italy. Art links the stories and all the artists invoked are men. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the most powerful results are achieved when Hubbard ventures beyond her middle-class creative types. Janice, the farm worker's abused wife whose knowledge of art is limited to the lid of a biscuit tin, wins our hearts when she starts stockpiling apple chutney in her son's toy cupboard as a hopeful means of escape.
Evidence of the poet's gift for imagery - "the wind snaps at the washing, filling out the drying shirts like the bloated bodies of the drowned" - is in plentiful supply. Of the ten stories, only two are in the first person. The second and last in the book is nakedly personal, and all the more powerful for it.
Nicholas Royle The Independent 9th September 2009
"The ten stories in this dazzling collection share a connection - sometimes direct and sometimes oblique - to a painter or painting, ranging from Goya to Rothko, from Bernini to Jackson Pollock. Sue Hubbard is an art critic as well as a fine poet, and her understanding of human motivation is as highly developed as her feeling for language and art. She writes with perception and sensitivity about contemporary English women, and about the men who give them so much pleasure and pain."
"Compelling and authentic, Sue Hubbard's stories have the unmistakable feel of reality. Bleak, yet always tinged with love, the reality comes from the joining of distinct skills: the artist's eye and talent for composition, and the poet's touch, with imagery which is never laboured but always the perfect expression of a story's theme. Not a word or picture is out of place."
Rothko's Red is a collection of ten stories, subtly linked by painting and art, about the lives of women: their hopes, fears, failures and challenges. They reveal the choices and destinies of a number of characters from very differing backgrounds, embracing the harsh realities of desire, loss and ageing. Powerful, yet tender, psychologically intricate and emotionally perceptive, these fearless stories examine the complex lives of modern women. Substantial, moving and beautifully written they call upon both Sue Hubbard's wide ranging knowledge of and feel for art, as well as her skill as a poet.
The light is fading as the evening draws in across the banana plantation. It laps round the walls of the Marimanti Rural Methodist Centre where she is the only guest like the incoming tide. Down the long hallway she can hear the tinny amplification of the TV at full volume where the caretaker is taking advantage of the single hour of electricity, provided by the ineffectual generator, before they are plunged into complete darkness. He is sitting in his vest, his dark skin covered with beads of sweat; his dusty feet up on a white plastic chair in the middle of the large room that is used for Bible conferences. Swatting flies and swigging beer from the neck of a bottle he scratches his groin as he watches the election rally, which flickers in the corner on the black and white set that's normally covered by a lace nylon cloth.
She doesn't much like him. There is something insolent and over familiar about his manner; quite different to all the other Kenyans she has met. The other evening he had walked into her room without knocking as she was standing wrapped in nothing but a towel, to tell her to stop using her hairdryer.
'Makes TV picture go,' he had said without apology.
The sound of the set bounces off the lino floors and metal window frames, echoing through the empty rooms of the long concrete bungalow that's the only substantial building for miles amid the scattering of wooden shacks and mud huts with their corrugated tin roofs. She can hear the voice of the opposition leader Raila Odinga haranguing President Mwai Kibaki. There are still months to go before the election, but her heart sinks every time she hears the obvious barefaced lies about bringing electricity, roads and secondary education to all the people of Kenya. For ever since she has been here she's watched the women trudging in the heat backwards and forwards from the river with oil drums of untreated water strapped to their backs and the barefoot children in patched uniforms trailing the five miles to school in the early morning along unmade roads.
She looks out of the window and sees a young boy in a torn T-shirt, grubby shorts and battered flip flops making his way home in the fading light over the dusty fields with a bundle of firewood. The fields are cracked and dry as the soles of his feet and he is caked in red dust.
She gets up and gathers her torch, her mobile phone and glasses and places them under the mosquito net next to her pillow. Her room is clean but spare. There is a desk, on which there is a copy of the Gideon Bible in fake green leather, and two beds covered in incongruous pale blue flowered satin bedspreads ruched with pink nylon, the sort of cheap decorations that she images you might find in a brothel. Hanging above each is a blue mosquito net. She searches for some matches and melts the stub of a thin candle onto a chipped saucer so that she will be prepared when the lights suddenly go out. That has been the hardest part, the dark. When she'd arrived here in the charity land rover from Nairobi all she had been able to see was a huddle of shacks and groups of shadowy figures lit by the occasional paraffin lantern.