“The Ecliptic” by Benjamin Wood – review

It’s so much easier to write a review when you can start with a brief, pithy sentence to sum up the book, outlining the genre, plot or characters and giving your readers an idea of what kind of novel we’re dealing with.  I finished “The Ecliptic” yesterday and to be honest, I’m not even able to encapsulate its essence in a way that’s comprehensible to me, let alone anyone else.  It’s indefinable – and superb.  It lures you in and then throws you off course until, by the time you’ve reached the explosive final section, your mind has taken a real battering.  If you enjoy books that confound your initial expectations then this is definitely for you.

The story starts in a somewhat unusual setting: Portmantle, an island refuge off the Turkish coast that caters for artists who have lost their inspiration.  The institution is overseen by the provost, who maintains an orderly community free from any luxuries or distractions, in which poets, painters, architects and all sort of creatives can rediscover their flair and motivation.  The trade-off for anyone coming to this sanctuary is the mandatory severing of all ties to the outside world.  No communication with friends or family is permitted.  Any possessions a resident is allowed to keep are of the most basic kind.  Once the gates to the refuge have closed behind you, even your name is sacrificed as it is considered a reminder of your former life that can only weigh you down.  All the artists living here have assumed names picked at random from the telephone directory – at first we know the novel’s main character only as those in Portmantle know her: Knell.

Knell, however, is telling her own story, and we soon learn that she is really Elspeth Conroy, a young Scottish painter who moved away from her working class roots and became a shining light of the London art scene.  The events of her life before Portmantle unfold in flashback, and a picture emerges of a lonely, troubled young woman struggling to maintain her artistic integrity in a world of self-promotion and superficial adulation, where the name above the gallery door is more important than any depth of meaning in the art itself.  Events take a turn for the worse, and then for the worse again, leading up to her admittance to the mysterious sanctuary that she hopes will be her salvation.

The refuge itself is one of the most cleverly created settings I’ve ever come across in a novel.  Its purpose is to allow artists to reach the point where they feel ready to return to the outside world with their creativity restored – and yet the author manages to filter in an underlying sense of unease as regards this unconventional place.  It reminded me of the school in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let me Go”: you can never put your finger on exactly what it is that makes you feel there’s more going on than meets the eye, but the feeling is definitely there.  When a newcomer, Fullerton, arrives at the gates, the island’s predictability and routine start to unravel.  It’s clear that this tormented young man is harbouring some kind of secret – and his coming may turn out to have a significance that no-one could have predicted.

As I said at the beginning, there’s no way to sum up this novel, except to say that it’s as enigmatic as the elusive ecliptic of the title.  The only way to get a sense of what I mean is to read it and see for yourself.  If I’ve tempted you to try it I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – it’s certainly something a bit different to take to the beach this summer!

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