I originally intended for this review to appear on Quadrapheme. I left their staff recently for reasons of social conscience a couple of months ago. This review should have appeared on the website in September but got lost; so I thought it would be best to publish it here, since we were parting ways in any case.
So here it is, with apologies to Benjamin Wood for tardiness. I got my copy of the novel after the launch party, which I want to say was sometime in late summer this year, so the review should have appeared a long time ago. But perhaps it’s a good thing it hasn’t gone up sooner; it contains very significant spoilers.
The Ecliptic, by Benjamin Wood
SPOILER ALERT: this review contains important plot details that will absolutely, unequivocally spoil the main thrust of the novel, and ruin a very satisfying surprise at the end. It’s a brilliant, gripping read, so you’ll burn right through it. If you’re at all interested in it, I suggest you pick up a copy before reading this review.
The Ecliptic, Benjamin Wood’s second novel, is set on Portmantle, a Turkish island retreat for creative types who have lost their ability to make art. Knell, the narrator and protagonist, is a painter who specialises in large-scale murals. In the first third of the book, she spends her days socialising in a desultory kind of way with her long-term inmate friends (an architect, a novelist, and a playwright): gossiping, eating, playing games for trinkets (they are not allowed to bring anything onto the island beyond the barest of personal effects), and sniping at the “short-termers”. Nothing much happens, apart from the arrival of a teenager whose artform is uncertain, and who seems intent on causing problems.
Then, just as the first part of the book ends, Knell shifts the setting dramatically: we are plunged into her own past. Suddenly the pace picks up; we discover that she is in fact called Elspeth (all Portmantle residents must adopt pseudonyms to free them from the pressures of their original identities), a diamond-in-the-rough Glaswegian painter with a shining future and an eclectic, disturbing style. After she leaves art school, she works in London as a dogsbody to Jim Culvers, a moderately famous (and more than moderately alcoholic) painter with whom she is unrequitedly in love. She is more talented than he is, and is quickly discovered by one of Jim’s supporters and drawn into the toxic postwar London art scene.
One of Elspeth’s first sexual encounters is with an art critic who rapes her, and this results in a pregnancy which ends in a dramatic miscarriage onboard a ship bound for New York. Following the trauma, unable to fully process her experiences, her ability to paint uncanny, original work diminishes, and she sinks into depression. While on medication, she is at least able to work steadily, churning out “collectible” pieces that she despises, but she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her work, and yearns to recapture the obsessive fugue-states that brought about her most meaningful paintings.
Eventually, given total freedom to produce her largest commission to date, a huge mural for an observatory, she is defeated by the problem of how to depict the “Ecliptic”, which is the imaginary path of the sun across the heavens as perceived from earth (we are well into the second half of the book by the time the concept that takes the novel’s title, as it were, wanders onstage, jazz hands akimbo). Having failed to finish the painting and retreated to Scotland to attend her first mentor’s funeral, she stumbles across the long-lost Jim, who disappeared years ago just at the moment when Elspeth began experiencing commercial success. They begin living together in a quasi-romantic relationship, and she watches him paint while obsessing over the possibility that he might abandon her again. His paintings are somehow more vivid, more meaningful than his earlier work, and he tells her that he recovered his ability to create by going to a mysterious place called Portmantle. By this stage Elspeth is in a state of psychological collapse, and Jim insists that she should go to Portmantle herself in order to rehabilitate her talent. We pick up where we left off, with Elspeth/Knell back on the island many years later, and the tragic events that closed part one begin unfolding towards a shocking conclusion.
Benjamin Wood is obviously interested, as all artists must be, in the mystery and frustrations of the creative process, and one of the great strengths of the novel is that it exposes the unglamorous side of making art. We see Knell sweating for days on end over each painting in her raw, inspired, and hectic early years, surviving until the work is done on canned foods and very little sleep. Wood skewers the art world to great effect, mercilessly caricaturing its insincere gallery-owners, promoters, agents, investors, and collectors.
Possibly the most wonderful thing about Wood’s cynical and clear-eyed portrait of the artist’s life is way he debunks the myth of artistic freedom. Elspeth is at her most productive precisely when she is given limited time to paint or draw, and vice versa. The huge commission for the observatory, with its distant deadline and conceptual freedom, makes her panic about minor details; and on Portmantle, with apparently limitless years ahead of her and no financial strain, she is unable to do anything but obsess over method. I stress this not least because the embrace of limits is crucial to my own writing (see this post for more on that).
I was smitten by the virtuosity of this novel; its beautiful writing, the moving depiction of the artist’s struggle with imagination and craft and dedication, the search for the elusive muse. But Portmantle itself, which should be the centrepiece of the novel, left me cold, and this dented my appreciation of the book as a whole. To have it revealed as having been all a dream at the end is rather disappointing, but this seems to account for the fact that the descriptions of Portmantle, and its inhabitants, seem thin on first reading. Elspeth’s friends on the island, as well as the provost and the various serving staff, are shadowy figures whose personalities are never fully developed, and this made it difficult to engage with the first part of the book.
The celestial Ecliptic is imaginary, hence Elspeth’s struggle with depicting it; and so, too, is Portmantle. Was Wood struggling to depict that, too, because he knew it didn’t really exist? Or was his depiction deliberately unclear? For me, the great frustration of this novel is in the way Wood plays with the idea of imagination. Has he been unbearably clever and intentionally made an imaginary place difficult to get to grips with so that the reader is neatly set up for the big reveal at the end, and can look back and laugh at how funny it was that Portmantle was hard to believe in? If this was the intention, it seems awfully cynical. Somehow, I doubt it.
Because of Wood’s obvious craftsmanship and skill, I am sure that Portmantle is exactly as well developed as he intended, but the place as it exists in Elspeth’s mind is simply not the satisfying illusion I needed in order to maintain my interest through that first section of the novel. Going back into Elspeth’s visceral, energetic artistic past in part two, I felt as though I was getting into the real novel; and of course, in a sense, I was being strung along, since Elspeth’s past is the only real story here; everything that predates Portmantle is real, since Portmantle exists only in Elspeth’s mind. Perhaps it seems disappointingly thin on detail, and its principal characters (Elspeth’s companions at the retreat) blur into one because Elspeth herself can’t fully imagine it — and if this was the intention, it’s all terribly clever. But in spite of the gasp of pleasure I let out when I reached the end of the book, realizing that the whole thing had been a mirage, I was left feeling that the joke was ultimately too elaborate. I needed Portmantle to exist fully, if only in Elspeth’s head; it’s every artist’s dream, a beautiful illusion that needed more colour to do it justice. If I had believed in it more fully, its destruction would have been all the more devastating. As it was, this was a novel that moved me only with its central portrait of Elspeth in the real world. It is rare that emotional intensity and virtuosity can coexist at an equally high level; Bach does it, but I can only think of a few writers who do. I look forward to Benjamin Wood’s future work, excited by the promise of The Ecliptic; Elspeth was an exquisitely compelling character – when she was being truthful in her recollections.