The Ecliptic (2 July 2015) by Benjamin Wood
The Ecliptic: I had a good feeling about this book. The first time I heard about it was, unsurprisingly, on Twitter, when those with early review copies began talking about it in reverent tones, implying it would be one of the best novels of the year. Naturally, this excited me, and naturally, it made me nervous. But the excitement won out enough that I squandered a whole Waterstones gift voucher on the hardback edition, thinking as I did so, this had better be worth it. Thankfully, it was.
In the first part of the book, Elspeth Conroy, a painter, is a resident at Portmantle, a refuge for artists housed on a sylvan island off the coast of Turkey. Presided over by the severe provost, it's a place for those who have lost touch with their muse, with a strict set of rules designed - in what might be seen as a contradictory fashion - to remove all barriers to creative freedom. This includes the creation of a new identity, so Elspeth is known as 'Knell', and her closest friends - MacKinney, Quickman and Pettifer, a playwright, author and architect respectively - are similarly pseudonymous. One joins Portmantle only by invitation, and must keep every detail of its nature, even its existence, secret. The opening scene depicts the arrival of a new member of the community, Fullerton, a teenage boy - just a child, a disruptive but very obviously fragile presence who Elspeth immediately feels maternal towards.
The second part spools back through Elspeth's history. From her childhood in Clydebank to an attic in London, the beginnings of success and fame, and a fateful boat journey to New York, her life is mapped out in scenes that flesh out her character so successfully she becomes painfully real. Being disconnected from Portmantle is initially upsetting - as a setting it has an irresistible pull, and I'd hoped the whole story would be set there. But I quickly realised our heroine's past would be just as absorbing and affecting as her present. This is particularly the case when it comes to Elspeth's relationship with her erstwhile mentor, Jim Culvers, with whom she falls in love. (Architects of unconvincing romances everywhere, take note - this is how you do a love story. It's absolutely heartbreaking.)
The third part takes us back to Portmantle.
And that's all I can say about the plot. Anything more is going to spoil major revelations that come in several bursts, upending each other, in the final quarter of the book, and while telling you what they are might not actually spoil your enjoyment - because it's all so beautifully written and beautifully crafted regardless, and this is a story that has twists rather than relying on them - I think it's better if you don't know.
The Ecliptic is first and foremost a book about the hard, exhausting, consuming work of creating art. It's a force that engulfs Elspeth's life, moulds her relationships, and manifests in occasional bursts of obsession and extreme fatigue that skew close to madness. Portmantle purports to offer a respite from all the distractions that might divert an artist from achieving their true purpose, but in the end it's those 'distractions' that make a life, and Elspeth and co's time there keeps them trapped in a loop of not creating. Rather than a shelter, it becomes a kind of stasis. Like addicts who can't leave rehab, Elspeth and her friends remain on the island for years - for so long they've lost track of the years - despite failing to complete any of their planned masterworks. The story in The Ecliptic is constantly provoking questions about how inspiration is lost and found, and what that means for the artist.
If I had to compare it to something? Station Eleven, and not just because a comic book plays a pivotal part. While reading both books I really savoured the style - yet again I want to use the words 'elegant' and 'restrained'; the characters are centre stage, their development the most important thing in the novel despite the often-dramatic, potentially complicated story in which they are placed; style-wise there is nothing over the top here, nothing that really plays with conventional language, but it's intelligent, powerful, and always has that odd little edge of implied strangeness that suggests there's something more to all of this than meets the eye - something just out of reach. (Though I should mention that The Ecliptic is definitely not dystopian or sci-fi or post-apocalyptic.)
The Ecliptic itself unfolds like the process of creating a painting, specifically one of Elspeth's works. Layers of paint are overlaid by a magic ingredient, the lustrous pigment she creates from an unusual species of mushrooms, with the end result being something that can only be properly appreciated and understood in certain conditions - from the correct angle, in the correct light, or lack of. In Wood's book, this moment comes in the fourth and final section, when the reader can finally step back and understand how everything not only fits together, but creates a glorious effect, a beautifully synchronised whole.
Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback