Author: Francesca Key
Based on the Theme: Book Club
Published by: Phoenix [part of Orion Books]
Date published: 2009
Length: 328 pages, including author's readers note
Genre: Debut, book club, romance, contemporary, feminism, regret, art, biography, adult fiction
The Synopsis: Jennet Mallow is born in Yorkshire in the 1920s but her interest in art and creativity alienates her from her family. When Jennet moves to London in search of a more exciting life, she finds it in her new environment and in the handsome and enigmatic figure of the painter David Heaton. When Jennet falls pregnant, her parents force the pair to marry and in the postwar austerity of the 1940s, the young couple struggles to make ends meet. Aware that David is becoming increasingly reliant on drink and tired of the dank and drab bedsit in which they live, Jennet suggests they move to Spain.
There the bright blue skies and sunlit beaches give the couple and their children a new lease of life. As Jennet's career begins to take off, her relationship with David sours and the two enter a destructive spiral with tragic consequences. Winner of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, An Equal Stillness is written in the form of a biography and is an outstanding debut.The Review:
Plot & pace: This is either a book which you'll fall completely in love with or you'll not get into and hate. To be fair when I first looked at the plot, it seemed to read like Consequences by Penelope Lively [which is utterly crap]. And I'll eat my words as I for one love it. We meet Jennet Mallow, at her birthplace at the foot of the Blue Mountains in Jamaica. It is from here to Yorkshire that we travel and with it, we watch Jannet's life story unfold. It is so brilliantly told you actually believe that this is not a piece of fiction but a biography of a real painter; I was tempted to hunt online for the artist till I remembered she was a fictional character [though the author does claim she is based on Barbara Hempworth].
The important elements of the story start when Jannet meets David Heaton at Kensington School of Art, where their bohemian love affair takes them on a whirl-wind 'romance', well I wouldn't say romance in the traditional sense but certainly a lustrous affair. Of course the one thing she forgets is contraception, resulting in a pregnancy and shot-gun wedding organised by her well-to-do parents. However, she is continually dissatisfied with how her life turns out and as the story progress we see her move to Spain, West Yorkshire, Cornwall, London... as described, she dreamed of new landscapes whenever she imagined change.
These landscapes take the form of paintings, her art work, which at first is stifled under the constraints of a marriage, housewife responsibilities and of course looking after four children. These paintings are described in chronological order, throughout the novel, to coincide with what life stage she was in at the time. Though at times, the narrative gets bogged down with artistic technicalities, the story presents a real insight into the abstract art world.
The tag line to the novel is really 'something's got to give'; a career, marriage or children. In essence all suffered due to her being a victim of circumstance, but also due to her own actions, something which the character did not like to admit or concede. Continual references are made to her life behind bars; she's either looking out or looking in, though it is never really clear which.
The plot is very complex and there are so many layers that it sometimes does not seem plausible and is hard to digest. For instance, David and Jannet's fathers post-traumatic stress disorder, from fighting in the wars, are woven in the story and not altogether convincingly so. It comes across as a bit of a try-hard in that sense, as though, being her debut novel, the author was trying to prove something.
Characters - Jannet is a very selfish character and I would not say loveable. Her treatment of men and children is poor in both her attitude and behaviour. She seems to want to do best by her children but views them as a constant source of frustration and a barrier to her success as an artist. Why have children in the first place then? She is very detached and seems willing to allow them to drift away from her. Her husband, David, is also not a character I liked. He is, at the start, a far more successful artist than Jannet but her fame overtakes him. Due to numerous reasons which are not altogether explained, he is also an alcoholic, leaving Jannet, almost a single-parent at times, to raise their children.
Language used and dialogue - There is little conversational dialogue in this book but it does not suffer. Francesca Key prose is so beautiful, vivid and artistic in it's own right. To give just one example:
"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," [pg. 324].
Narrator - This is the part which is the most fascinating. All along I thought the narrator would be a close friend or art historian. But no, you find out right at the end that it's her son Adam, whom she had late in life and pretty much gave up for adoption. It reads as though it was a woman writing it, not a man and certainly not a son, particularly when you consider he writes about his own mother's sex life with detail and in such a candid way. It spoils it because for one you cannot believe it and another, you can just tell it is written by a woman, not a man. That said it does explain the lack of emotional attachment and perhaps some resentment towards the parental figures in the novel. Though, considering it is meant to be written by Adam, her son, he never gives his personal opinion and in a way it is a very true biography, being more objective than subjective.
Setting - All over the place. Jannet's solution to a problem is run away and set up life in another country or town and hope it will sort her life problems out and give her inspiration for her art work. All it does is create new difficulties and issues which add to her resentment over her predicament.
Themes and ideas - The book is packed full of different themes and quite a few are left unexplored. I liked the premise of the book, particularly explaining Jannet's art through the events in her life and vice versa. However, I think it does loose direction, trying to add so many complex layers to the main core themes of the book that it takes away from what is, at the core of it, a truly wonderful story.
Overall review - If you love art, you'll appreciate this book. The prose is exceptional, but the story sometimes lacks clarity and focus. The characters are hard to love and as such, some readers may loose interest. You may finish reading the book with a sour taste in your mouth after the narrator is revealed, but don't let that cloud your judgement. I very much fell in love with the story and though it may not be everyone's cup or tea, it was certainly mine. 3* Stars.