As I wrote in a previous post, I was invited to be a shadow judge for this year’s Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award alongside some other fantastic bloggers including Naomi from TheWritesofWomen. Given that the self-defined mission of her blog is to only cover books by women, I’m very proud to host Naomi’s reviews of the three shortlisted male authors on my blog and it’s interesting what different views she has compared to my own thoughts about the books. If you want to read my review of The Ecliptic click here.

 

Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conway, celebrated artist, is holed up in Portmantle, a retreat on a Turkish island. Directed to this mystery location by her sponsor, she befriends playwright MacKinney, novelist Quickman and architect Pettifer. Into their world arrives seventeen-year-old, Fullerton.

From our very first glimpse of him, we understood that he was one of us. He had the rapid footfalls of a fugitive, the grave hurriedness of a soldier who had seen a grenade drop somewhere in the track behind. We could recognise the ghosts that haunted him because they were the same ghosts we had carried through the gates ourselves and were still trying to excise.

As the quartet keep watch over the troubled youngster, they also battle their own creative demons. Portmantle, Knell explains, exists out of time – as does art – as well as providing a sanctuary where artists can relocate their artistic desires. Each has a failed project which has driven them to the retreat. For Knell it’s a commission for which she was attempting to render The Ecliptic – ‘a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year’ – on a mural for the Willard Observatory.

While the first and third sections of the novel take place at Portmantle, the second takes us back into Knell’s past documenting how she became an artist, her rise to prominence and her relationship with the artist Jim Culvers.

Elspeth’s from a Clydebank family and attends Glasgow School of Art on a scholarship – a detail far more plausible in the 1950s and ’60s of the novel than the present day. There she’s taught by Henry Holden who tells her to ‘Paint what you believe’. When the external assessor finds Elspeth’s blasphemous painting Deputation unworthy of a grade, the school denies her graduation and she goes off to London – thanks to Holden – to be Jim Culvers’ assistant. Holden says it’ll take a while for Culvers to realise she’s better than him. When that does happen, Culvers’ agent sets up Elspeth’s first show.

While at Portmantle, Knell comments on her name:

I always suspected my work was undermined by that label, Elspeth Conway. Did people exact their judgements upon me in galleries when they noticed my name? Did they see my gender on the wall, my nationality, my class, my type, and fail to connect with the truth of my paintings? It is impossible to know. I made my reputation as an artist with this label attached and it became the thing by which people defined and categorised me. I was a Scottish female painter, and thus I was recorded in the glossary of history.

While Knell sees an issue with her name and gender, Wood does something few male novelists do well in portraying her purely as an artist and a human. Knell reads precisely as a female painter because Wood never treats her as one. His focus is on the creative process and her relationships with fellow creatives.

The Ecliptic focuses on the creative process throughout the novel. At Portmantle, Knell and her friends worry that they have lost their abilities. They over analyse their work, attempting – and failing – to recreate past highs, or avoid artistic endeavour altogether. They work in secret, rarely discussing their progress, or lack of it. In the novel’s second – and strongest section – Elspeth learns her craft, encountering the disparity between the public’s, the critics’ and her own views of her work. Wood uses this section to consider the effect on an artist’s confidence and, therefore, their work when external forces begin to exert pressure on the creative process. It’s no surprise that Elspeth, still only twenty-six, struggles to cope.

In his attempt to explore how the creative process works, Wood pulls a sleight of hand on the reader which is revealed in the fourth and final section. At the Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers’ event, Wood said that he knew he was taking a risk with this. Whether or not he pulls it off will, I suspect, depend on the taste of each of the novel’s readers. For me, it was an ambitious – and an interesting – undertaking and I’d rather see a novelist challenge themselves to produce something unusual and difficult than play it safe. Whilst I wasn’t wholly convinced, the very end of the novel is inspired and very clever; it left me feeling that Benjamin Wood is one to watch, I suspect he’s going to produce something very special indeed. 

Being an artist isn’t like other professions. It’s not a livelihood where the primary motivation for devoting one’s labour to it is for money or status or the simple satisfaction of a job well done or even making the world a better place. Certainly these factors influence artists during their careers, but the act of creating art is about realizing a vision and making something meaningful. The path to inspiration is elusive. Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic” questions what drives, galvanizes and motivates artists. The narrator Elspeth Conroy is stuck. She’s a painter who has received acclaim for her work, but the majority of her output feels like it falls short of saying anything profound. On a small island off the coast of Turkey there is an artists’ retreat for those who have lost their way in whatever discipline they pursue. It has a rigid code and rules designed to support them in finding their way back to inspiration. Elspeth has spent many years here, but does retreating from the world encourage the creation of real art or only drive her irretrievably further into herself?

At the retreat, Elspeth has become part of a tight-knit group of other artists who are architects, novelists and playwrights. They have daily comfortable routines while waiting for the muse to visit them again. One day a very young man arrives to join the colony and their ordered world is disrupted. What follows is an engrossing complex tale of artistic aspirations, tangled passion and the quest for meaning. Elspeth is one of those rare female protagonists who isn’t motivated by a desire for romance or success, but wants to create art in the purest sense. Her journey questions whether this is even possible. It deals with all the complicated factors which drive us to create and experience art, shedding light on the reasons why art can be the one thing which makes our difficult lives bearable.

The  ecliptic  is the apparent path of the Sun on the celestial sphere - something invisible Elspeth tries to realize in her art.

The ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun on the celestial sphere - something invisible Elspeth tries to realize in her art.

The author is good at wrong-footing you in this novel and avoiding cliché. A situation where a painter is eclipsed by his assistant could prompt scenes of deception and jealousy. Instead a gentle ceding to recognized talent is allowed and a surprising new camaraderie forms later on. A fast-talking art agent who would be presented as nothing but a caricature in many novels is presented in this story as having a surprisingly intuitive sensitive side. This is the kind of writing that sees the everyday humanity in people and that everyone is just stumbling along, trying to do their best and make something meaningful.

There are many compelling different perspectives given throughout the novel on the impact of art both for the artist and the public who consume it. At one point the playwright MacKinney reflects: “that’s the problem, isn’t it? Once your best story’s told, it can’t be told again. It makes you, then it ruins you.” Some speculate that everyone has one great story in them, but once this is realized in an artistic form does this mean the artist is defined and trapped by it? Once you know the story you want to tell in art it can be devastatingly complicated finding the right form to communicate it through. Can it be found through sheer persistence? At one point it’s posited that “doggedness in art is no substitute for inspiration.” But at another point it’s observed that “real inspiration turns up only when your invitation has expired.” There is no straightforward way of finding the muse which artists wax on about so poetically. With occasional asides from Elspeth that tell us the things that no art college teaches you, this novel considers the multifaceted ways in which art finds ways of expressing the inexpressible.

Benjamin Wood constructs his story carefully so that the past reflects meaningfully upon the present in Elspeth’s journey as an artist. All the while it has tremendous momentum and drive making it compulsively readable. The closest comparison I can make for Wood’s novel is Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” for the way in which it deals with high concepts about art in a way which is utterly unpretentious and tells a cracking good story at the same time. The ending has left me thinking hard about how we create and commune with art. “The Ecliptic” is a passionate, invigorating and expertly conceived novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBenjamin Wood
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