Stephen Fry is quoted on the front cover saying ‘This book is complete perfection’. It feels both churlish and foolish to be disagreeing with someone so obviously far more intelligent than me. But I’ve read a great deal of fiction and this book, good though it is, is neither amongst the best nor anywhere close to being perfect.
Rachel Kelly is an artist of intense and palpable talent. Bi-polar, with a ferocious ability to be alone even while in the midst of her family, she has lived and worked in Cornwall for most of her adult life. Husband Antony found her in the Ashmolean when they were both students in Oxford. Just as the possibility of a relationship between them was developing it became obvious that a previous unsuitable liaison had left her pregnant. Antony brought her back to the Cornish house he was born in for protection and care. She sort of latched on to him, he sort of fell in love with her, she painted, made a quiet but substantial name for herself, had children, had time away from them all in an asylum, and with constant management by drugs kept living although the quality of her work and her vision ebbed. Meanwhile, Antony brought her and their children into the family of his Quaker faith and spent his time patiently working for her benefit, comfort and defence. The children found their own ways of dealing with the strain their mother’s behaviour put on them and it is this which provides much of the interest and most of the mess of the book. When Rachel dies the remains of the family began to unwrap tendrils of a different story which etches new realities onto their own chosen paths.
Where the book gripped me was in the descriptions of Rachel’s paintings and her illness. Both were drawn with colour, lucidity and a ferocious vivacity which made them feel tangible and possible. I could picture the pictures and I was sweating over the fear of existence/non-existence that drove her into a decaying space but which also gave her the very singular vision that lifted her art from above the trivial round of Cornish copyists. Cornwall and the post-war Cornish art scene were drawn in more lightly. Which was fine, a character called Dame Barbara Hepworth, who bore certain similarities to the sculptor of the same name, added plenty of barbed and smoky colour, but really the point was that Rachel was not part of the artistic set. She was a woman set upon her own course and dashed be all others.
Then there was the Quakerism. This was an integral aspect of the novel. The listening patience of the faith was the still point upon which the action squirmed. It was a gesso base for the pigment of the plot. However, here there was something missing, something not quite convincing. It was as if the descriptions of Quaker faith and practice had become disengaged as a means to exemplify its calmness. Or perhaps I’m too much of a high church incense junkie for it to penetrate. Whichever, whenever Quakerism came to the fore the book felt teachy and less natural.
Finally, there was the ending. I didn’t want the book to be over – not because I was so engrossed but because I could feel a disappointing finish was only pages away. And it was disappointing – a confirmation of what was already known with any sense of a further life patchily severed. There was no perfection in this ending, it simply looped back into the story, neatly describing an event alluded to all the way through without adding anything fresh, positive or incisive: where I was hoping for the visceral, uncompromising beauty of an early Kelly abstract it felt like I was offered the close-to the sentimental, dashed-off easy professionalism of her late period figurative work, interesting but unsatisfying.