"....she rehearsed in silence the calming incantations: viridian, sienna, caput mortuum, ultramarine. Larch Venice turpentine, poppy and safflower oils, rough linen, amber varnish.... these words are her touchstone; she tells them as a nun would tell her beads."
That passage is typical of this quietly powerful novel; calm, intense, measured, vivid and almost elemental, all these words represent the style and the emotional palette of the book. Francesca Kay's impressive first novel, An Equal Stillness, is the story of Jennet Mallow, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Jennet is entirely fictitious, but so sure is Francesca Kay's touch, and so compelling is her writing that the reader will have to stay their hand from reaching to search for images of Jennet's work - I wish the paintings she describes were real for I can certainly see them in my mind's eye.
The story reads like a biographical piece, and the identity of the narrator remains unstated until almost the end. But despite their evident close personal involvement in the life of the subject, the spareness of the writing, its economy, manages to convey intimacy with appropriate distance, too.
Jennet grows up in Yorkshire, product of a marriage more convenient than loving - "...as a door marked exit he would do", thought her mother of her father. Art school in London in the late 1940s, an ill-advised union with David Heaton, the rising star of the art world, then family life in Spain, before a return to England and the resumption of a career which sees her eventually achieve unparalleled success. Throughout the book the interplay of personal and professional lives is skillfully done, but the recurring motif is one of love given or taken but not in equal measure, and Jennet's path is far from being a smooth one.
This is the third debut novel I've read in the last few days (the others are here and here); they are all very different but all equally assured, and as a result, my reading year has begun with some very fine work indeed. This book will be read on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime in February; that exposure is well-deserved.