JENNET MALLOW is a fictional artist whose biography An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay won this year’s new writers Orange Award.
Kay’s debut novel is a narrative feat worthy of its trophy that explores the artistic inclination against familial obligations and the pursuit of love.
Born in 1924 in South Yorkshire to a war-shocked father and a disillusioned mother, Jennet shows her artistic leanings at an early age. Escaping the unhappy home she takes a place at Oxford but, finding it oppressive, flees to Cornwall to work on a farm. Here she starts to christen “the sea and sky with their precise richness of colour – turquoise, azure, sapphire” and for her it is like learning a new language, “the only way she could say out loud what she knew was worth the saying”.
Taking a place at the Kensington School of Art, Jennet meets David Heaton, a mercurial charmer certain of his own genius.
A child is conceived.
They marry and Jennet shelters in the luminance of David’s burgeoning success, struggling with the daily toils of home and baby and his philandering, alcoholic absence in bohemian post-war London. A move to Spain begets more wine-fuelled carousing for David and family enlargement by way of twins. Against the odds Jennet finds inspiration to paint in the Mediterranean light and rural beauty. It springboards her own career. Back in London, her talent, diligence and hard work secure a home, and Jennet’s future as a serious artist.
The biography is delivered in beautiful and often figurative prose that includes descriptions of fictional paintings in such word-illustrative-detail that the reader is surprised to learn, she is not a painter..
The narrative poses many dilemmas. Is art important?
Can an artist be a good mother and wife?
Is talent squandered or lack of it the expedient to waste?
Is all love dissipated in the end?
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