Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Portmantle is a mysterious artists’ retreat centre on the Turkish island of Heybeliada. Its rules are strict: acceptance is at the recommendation of a sponsor, and entry is via secret password and at gunpoint; once inside, each beleaguered artist takes on a false name and has zero contact with the outside world until it is time to leave, whether by choice or by expulsion. Among the old hands at Portmantle are Quickman the novelist, Pettifer the architect, MacKinney the playwright, and our narrator, Knell, a visual artist. Before too long we learn that Knell was once Elspeth Conroy, a Scottish painter born in 1937. After some struggles with mental illness, she came to Portmantle in 1962 on the advice of Jim Culvers, the artist for whom she worked as an assistant after university. How much time has passed since then she is unsure, but she imagines it has been about a decade.
From the start Portmantle is an eerie, Kafkaesque setting. Some of the pseudonyms have ominous connotations, with ‘Ender’ as well as ‘Knell’ introducing a note of foreboding. The isolation of the retreat centre gives the novel something of the feeling of an absurdist play that could take any direction without warning. For instance, just before the arrival of a new resident, a teenage comics artist named Fullerton, Quickman announces, ‘Places, everyone.’ All the artists are housed in individual cabins, and Knell’s habit of creeping around staring through others’ windows increases the stagy quality of the writing.
Fullerton’s presence changes things at Portmantle. The comfortable routines Knell and her friends have developed are threatened by the young man’s unpredictability. He suffers from terrible nightmares and goes around sleepwalking and breaking windows. Knell discloses her worries to the provost, but in the midst of preparing a reading from MacKinney’s play as the writer’s send-off, Fullerton gets rather forgotten. That is, until Knell discovers that his problems were much more severe than anyone ever guessed.
The Fullerton episode takes up less than a third of the novel and is a tremendous piece of writing, gripping and Gothic, with wonderful metaphors everywhere you look: ‘getting answers from the provost was like trying to press cider from geraniums’, ‘His dark hair parted easily in the middle, like the pages of a Bible’, and ‘a curious shade, vivid yet lucent, like the antiseptic liquid barbers keep their combs in, or the glaucous sheen on a plum.’
But there is still over two-thirds of the novel yet to go. Whatever will happen next? I wondered with some misgivings. The core of the book, nearly 200 pages, is a flashback to Elspeth’s life before Portmantle. Interspersed with her difficulty working while battling depression, there’s an ill-fated boat voyage to New York City, during which she meets Victor Yail, who becomes her psychotherapist. On her return, her luck changes when she is commissioned to paint a mural for a Durham science centre. Learning basic astronomy, she is fascinated by the idea of an ecliptic, an imaginary line denoting the earth’s orbit around the sun. As Elspeth’s mental issues resurface, she takes up with Jim again, this time as lovers, in a remote Scottish cottage. He tells her of the Turkish retreat centre where he finally got sober.
At last, after what feels like too long a digression, we come full circle back to Portmantle. If you have been paying very close attention, you will realise that one of Knell’s fellow artists is a character she met before as Elspeth. The ecliptic concept, likewise, takes on new significance as the title of Fullerton’s comic book series. At this point the novel starts to resemble Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a book that also shares its title with a graphic novel described within – indeed, it’s no surprise that Mandel is one of the authors whose praise for The Ecliptic is included on the cover. As the book picks up pace again, Knell starts to feel unsafe at Portmantle, and determines to undertake a risky escape.
I didn’t warm to The Ecliptic quite as much as I did to Wood’s first novel, The Bellwether Revivals (2012), which bears a striking resemblance to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, what with its elegantly sinister tale of secrets amongst a group of posh college students. Still, it’s really interesting to see how Wood alternates between realism and surrealism here. I enjoyed getting a taste of each artist’s work – a synopsis of Quickman’s most famous Japanese-set novel, a short scene from MacKinney’s play, and descriptions of Elspeth’s most famous paintings and her pigment-making techniques. Wood writes vividly and patiently, showing how the artist’s work takes time and attention.
Being careful not to give too much away, I’ll simply say that the parts of the novel that feel most real and immediate and the parts that are illusory are difficult to distinguish between. If you don’t have much tolerance for novels that ‘trick’ you, you may struggle with this one – but it would be a shame to avoid it, given how well Wood writes. He’s one of the best young British novelists out there. I’ll leave you with a trio of quotes that will give you a taste of the odd, melancholy, shape-shifting novel you have to look forward to:
‘Art and happiness won’t stand each other’s company for long.’
‘Death is something only art can qualify.’
‘It’s hard to separate the truth from the rest of it.’
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Benjamin Wood, The Ecliptic (Scribner: London, 2015). 978-1471126703, 465 pp., hardback.
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