Sometimes a book comes along that seems to sit really comfortably
with my reading mood, slots in perfectly and, when I'm often eagerly
asked by those who have sent me books whether I've read them yet, I try
and explain that timing is everything. I always know when I'm reading a
'right' book at the 'wrong' time and I don't despair or discard these
days, just shelve and wonder when its moment will come.
All I knew of An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay was that it had won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers but as soon as I started reading I knew the reading planets had conveniently converged and I was engrossed.
Even sufficiently impressed to wish it into a precious Booker long list place, to no avail.
The second book this week to begin with an ending, the funeral of celebrated artist Jennet Mallow and in that way that often happens I launched headlong into the book and had quite forgotten when the reveal about authorship is repeated towards the end that this had been hinted at on the very first page. The decision by 'someone' to write this biography albeit fictional was quickly lost on me as I was rapidly absorbed into the life and art of Jennet.
There are many themes competing for a reader's attention but the central conflict of Jennet's art and creativity versus the demands of motherhood takes centre stage,
'responsibility to the people she had brought into the world or truth to her vocation?'
Married to the philandering David, the epitome of the egocentric artist frequently 'danced away by sirens' in the shape of women, alcohol and drugs, with the occasional successful exhibition to keep him in the public consciousness, Jennet's talent becomes stifled and shackled by the arrival of children.
One of the many triumphs and successes for me in An Equal Stillness were these children, like shadows in the background of Jennet's life and particularly Vanessa, the pale, frail wraith-like child, the ever-present and ghostly reminder of all Jennet's supposed maternal failings. The children are obstacles to her creativity and edged to the periphery of the narrative, yet as a reader I knew they were there and it could only be a matter of time before they were given a voice and had their say. As Jennet falls into guilt not love and carries the dead weight of her family, the tortured soul becomes increasingly apparent in her work.
'She was on her own but encumbered by her millstones, and unlike the great artists of the past, almost all of them male, she had no choice but to shoulder them, to drag them with her into the material of art. She used to dream of alchemy, but that was in another time. She did not imagine then the rawness of the stuff she would have to transmute later into gold.'
Another triumph for me was the sense of place coupled with
the art and the progression of Jennet's painting as it reflected her
passage through life.
Spain with its light and warmth, St Ives with its pure, clear brightness, London and a sense of imprisonment and entrapment and the moors of the north, a wilderness, 'compelling, austere and remote'. I know, all predictable analogies waiting to be explored, yet dabbed and daubed into the descriptions of the paintings and real enough to touch. Somehow the art flowed right on in and blended so well into the narrative I could have been walking through an exhibition and gazing at Jennet's paintings, seeing the filaments of gauze veil with which she overlaid some of her work, as if making me see it as she had; art with obstacles to the gaze obscuring the depths of the meaning and all conveyed through the medium of beautiful prose.
'Painters convey the souls of the long dead across the bridge of years to a hundred thousand watchers who knew nothing of them.'
Francesca Kay's richness and depth of language like perfectly measured brush strokes.
Not really knowing enough about them I ignored any similarities to the lives of real artists, though the ghosts of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and their triplets have to be stalking these pages somewhere, but that didn't feel relevant or necessary to my enjoyment of An Equal Stillness.
I've been reading wall-to-wall contemporary fiction of late with only the occasional intermission and sadly not a single media-savvy chimpanzee, or multitudes of machete-laden civil wars with accompanying blood, gore and writhing maggots in sight to earn An Equal Stillness that Booker long list place I'd hoped for, but occasionally a book just sparkles and dazzles in its own right regardless and this one did just that for me.
Sometimes a person has to work with what they are given, achieve that impossible balance and constantly reweigh and redistribute those elements of life which threaten to tip the balance too far one way or the other, Jennet's life reflecting the pull of creativity against the gravity of responsibility, a constant reappraisal of duty and truth to self,
'And everything is still, the slack tide poised, the sawy of the sea suspended, the air unmoving as if the whole world were holding its breath. Air and water in an equal stillness, sharing with each other the same scantness of colour, the same palely blue-tinged milky light.'