Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 465 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.
I’m quite partial to books about art and the creative process, so Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic had instant appeal: a story set on a private island for beleaguered artists all struggling to recapture the muse that has deserted them. Think a motley crew of painters, writers, musicians and architects, all living together under the watchful eye of a provost and each working on an individual project that will restore them in the eyes of the artistic communities in which they once belonged.
It’s part mystery, part historical novel, the kind of story that is ambitious in scope and structure, a wonderful blend of art, madness and creativity.
A painter’s life
This four-part novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, is narrated by a Scottish painter, who introduces herself as follows:
I was born Elspeth Conroy in Clydebank, Scotland, on the 17th March 1937. I had always thought my family name quite unremarkable, and my Christian name so formal and girl-pretty. Elspeth Conroy, I felt, was the name of a debutante or a local politician’s wife, not a serious painter with vital things to say about the world, but it was my fate and I had to accept it. My parents believed a refined Scottish name like Elspeth would enable me to marry a man of higher class (that is to say, a rich man) and, eventually, I managed to prove their theory wrong in every respect.
Elspeth, you soon learn, is a talented artist, who achieved great success in the 1960s London art scene — against the odds — but then she lost her muse, and now she’s living on Portmantle, an island off the coast of Turkey, with other artistic “has-beens” trying to draw on new wells of inspiration.
Thrown into this mix is a troubled young man whose arrival on the island disturbs the equilibrium of all who live there. Who is he? Why is his behaviour so odd? And what is he hiding?
But before we get to figure that out, the novel takes a dramatic shift in direction, and we are taken right back to Elspeth’s early days as a fledgling artist, first in Scotland, then in London. We follow her as she (unexpectedly) finds fame and then witness her struggles to come to terms with it while remaining true to her artistic values. We learn of the unrequited love she feels for her mentor and the terrible tragedy that befalls her onboard an ocean liner bound for the US.
It is this second part, entitled Rooms from Memory, that forms the remarkable backbone to an unconventionally structured novel, which, it could be argued, follows the ecliptic of the title. (The ecliptic is “a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year”, one that is entirely imaginary.)
A novel with a twist
It’s difficult to say much more about this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers. There’s a delicious twist at the end — one I did not see coming — and it’s of the kind that seems to divide opinion: you either think it’s genius or you feel slightly cheated by it. But whatever you think, there’s no doubting that the author went out on a limb, took a risk and did something that was far from predictable.
This lack of predictability is apparent throughout the entire novel. It could have been easy to have Elspeth and her mentor develop a sexual relationship; instead Wood writes the best depiction of unrequited love I’ve ever read in modern fiction.
Similarly, he could have made Elspeth a weak-willed woman; instead he gives her true grit. She’s a tough, determined and intriguing character, one who is true to her self and prepared to furrow her own plough, without fear or favour. The female voice also feels authentic and it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with her.
But it’s the detail of the painter’s work — the technical aspects of grinding pigments, how they prepare canvases, the brush techniques they use — which makes the novel feel so vividly real. (In this respect it reminded me of Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which I read earlier this year and loved for the same reasons.)
If you like art, mysteries and historical fiction, there’s plenty to admire in The Ecliptic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, one that is intelligent, cleverly plotted and full of rich, intimate language. Its slow build up of suspense, despite its length, is also a feat that demonstrates much skill. But for me, the ending was slightly disappointing, although I loved the strange, almost hallucinogenic nature of it.
This is my 3rd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.