An Equal Stillness - Review

An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay

I do not know how this book managed to pass me by when it was released in 2009 but I am so glad to have found it now.

The blurb on Amazon goes nowhere near describing how special and unusual this book is. To read that you’d think this was just a normal novel. But it is SO much more than that.

It is written as a biography and for a long time I thought that was what I was reading. I planned on googling Jennet Mallow and visiting the Tate to see her paintings. The tone and timeline are so authentic, the distanced objectivity of the narrator, the listing of artworks, the casual name-dropping of contemporary artists all contribute to the biographical style of this extraordinary book.

Jennet’s story really resonated with me. Married to an older man who was, at the time, a more successful artist, Jennet supresses her own creativity in favour of his, acting as his model and his muse, she became as poseable as a doll,  suffering his physical abuse and emotional control, his frequent bouts of drunkenness and his habitual affairs. David Heaton is a narcissist; it’s all about him. She bears and raises his children, copes with penury in a damp and cramped little house and follows him on a whim to an isolated village in Spain. Later, when she finds a man she can really love and has a brief affair, she is made to feel guilty; all her heroic forbearance over years of abuse is decimated by that one fall from grace. I wept for the injustice of it.

But the book’s most amazing achievement is its depiction, though words alone, of Jennet’s art. The quality of light, of texture and colour are so beautifully depicted. Iridescence, shadow, the vast spectrum and nuance of colour (mothwing, musselshell) all illuminate the pages so tangibly they might as well have been colour plates. You don’t have to have an artistic eye (or any eyes at all) to see the canvasses in all their astonishing richness. Francesca paints them for you in beautiful words and poetic imagery. She layers them, like paint. She sculpts and hones them. They shimmer before you.  And she has a deep understanding of the relationship between art and mental state, linking beautifully the causality between what Jennet experiences, feels, endures, and the images she conjures into being.

This a wonderfully written novel, a tour de force in literary fiction and Francesca Kay is a name to look out for.