Monday, 24 August 2009

An Equal Stillness

This is another first novel - Francesca Kay was the winner of the Orange Prize for new writers in 2009. At first glance the structure could be a bit of a cliche. An Equal Stillness opens with the funeral of a famous artist, attended by family members. Someone suggests that the narrator should write her biography and, after initially demurring, the anonymous narrator is persuaded to do so. 'Write the life, they urged me, even at her graveside; no one but you should do it. Who better? You with your command of words, and besides, you were the closest.' Apart from the first and last pages, the life story of Jennet Mallow is told in third person, impersonal mode as if it were a real biography. This device enables the novelist to take an overview of the life, compressing long periods of time into short sections of narrative and it also allows for authorial reflection. The identity of the author/narrator isn't disclosed until the end.

I read the book in one sitting - which says a lot for its readability - and was engrossed by the story of Jennet Mallow, a gifted painter, born at the end of the first world war, who has to struggle for recognition despite unhelpful parents, an early accidental pregnancy, an alcoholic husband and a daughter damaged at birth. Jennet Mallow discovers that, in order to succeed as an artist, you have to be selfish and that runs counter to everything that is drummed into women from birth and then reinforced by cultural stereotypes. Women are the carers, the enablers, the ones who make sacrifices. But, somehow, like many other painters and writers, Jennet manages to juggle home and artistic career, though there are casualties among her children and her lovers.

The biography is somehow less critical than it could be - difficult questions are avoided. This is a romantic viewpoint and - again - the impersonal biographical device allows it. I kept wishing for something more profound which could only have come from writing the novel from Jennet Mallow's own perspective. There is some beautiful prose in this book - sections of pure poetry. It is all very beautiful, balanced, elegant, crafted perfectly to arrive at the final lines - 'Life and death. For that one moment, time suspended, the length of a single held breath, like the spaces between brush strokes, like the sea and land in balance at slack water, in an equal stillness, life and death.' Shame on me to crave a few waves, an altogether stormier sea. This is definitely an author to watch out for.

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