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2009 Memoirs Orange Prize

An Equal Stillness – Francesca Kay

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Winner of the Orange Award for New Writers, 2009

< ?php echo amazon('0297855492','An Equal Stillness ‘); ?>is the biography of a fictional artist. It is a simple book about the life of a painter, her family and her passion for art.

Unfortunately this book just wasn’t for me – I’m not a big art lover and rarely read biographies. If this had been a real biography then it would have been OK, but I just don’t see the point of a fictional one – I was bored throughout. Very little happened and her life seemed very ordinary to me.

The fact it was written in the style of a biography meant that I was distanced from the character and so failed to develop any emotional connection with her. Any attempt to guess at her feelings just annoyed me, as I don’t think it is really possible to know what someone else is thinking and so I’m afraid this book went further downhill, the more I read.

It was a quick, easy read and the writing was poetic in places, but I’m afraid I just didn’t care.

The final years of Jennet Mallow’s life were fruitful. After the colour blocks she returned to the more nearly monochrome, making seven large pictures which are untitled, but again evocative of air and water.

If you love art and gentle prose then I’m sure you’ll love this book, but it was just too ‘still’ for me.

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I have seen lots of positive reviews for this book, so if you’ve read it:

Why did you love it?

Do you enjoy fictional biographies?

25 replies on “An Equal Stillness – Francesca Kay”

That’s a shame that you didn’t enjoy it. What I loved was the descriptions of the paintings – it’s difficult to make you imagine pictures that you haven’t seen and I thought Kay did this very well. In some ways I also felt it reminiscent of the Pat Barker regeneration trilogy, but maybe that would appeal to you more as it is based on real characters.

Verity, Descriptions of paintings do nothing for me, so I am quite pleased that was the main attraction for you in this book. I haven’t read the Pat Barker trilogy yet, but didn’t realise they were about art too – I’ll have to make sure I approach them with caution now.

I’m sorry that you didn’t get on with this. I am an art and biography lover so that combination – and in the lovely prose – sold it to me .But, yes, it is quiet and so if the subject matter doesn’t appeal there wouldn’t be enough left to make it a satisfying read.

FleurFisher, Yes, this is the perfect book for the art/biography lover. I knew that you loved it, but didn’t realise it was mainly for the art. Hopefully we’ll find another book we both enjoy soon.

Thank you for such an honest review!

I am an art lover wannabe. I have never learned to appreciat art, but I am seeking to learn that skill as I grow older. I do enjoy biographies and I think I may like to give this book a try.

The title lends itself wonderful well to your pun on “still”!

Ha, I’ll see what I think about this one. I know well enough by now that I like gentle reads as much as I do plot-driven ones (for instance, I really liked Brooklyn whilst I know it didn’t make too much of an impression on you). As for books about art, it wouldn’t be my first choice of subject matter but I really enjoyed How to Paint a Dead Man and Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Claire, I have no idea why I liked How to Paint a Dead Man , but somehow that managed to move me (haven’t yet read Pearl Earring), while this one left me cold. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on it. I’m sure you’ll like it more than me – the question is: how much?!

This is such an interesting idea – I don’t think I’ve ever come across a fictional biography before, unless you count Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s a shame it wasn’t better-executed in this case.

Jenny, I haven’t read Pale Fire, so I’m afraid I can’t comment on that, but I didn’t enjoy Summertime by Coetzee, which is the only other fictional biography I’ve read. I think it was well executed in this case – I’m just not into this sort of thing.

If I recall, you also were a bit perplexed by J.M. Coetzee’s Summerland, which was another fictional memoir/biography, so it definitely seems like this is the kind of book that really isn’t for you!

softdrink, I didn’t realise that The Lacuna was a fictional biography. I’m so pleased that I didn’t rush out to get it. I think I’ll happily miss it now I know that.

It wasn’t the fictional biography structure of this book that got to me – although I take the previous points. I am an artist and came to the book rather cautiously, but willing to read it with an unbiased mind. As hard as I tried it was very difficult to remain open to the work. I am bemused by all the people who love the book. It was if the author had done some research into stereotyped aspects of her subject area and averaged them to come up with both plot and characters, consequently there was no depth or complexity to either. This was unfortunate because there would have been so many lateral ways to deal with both the form and content of the work. Furthermore, learning at the end the biographer was the main character’s son was unpleasant as there had been several very detailed sex scenes – which does relate to the structural criticisms. In the book’s favour, some of the prose was wonderful – perfect poignant snapshots of thought and feeling, interspered with descriptions of paintings. I thought the book would have been ideal if these had been left in the work and everything else edited out – so the book was a loosely linked series of poetic pieces of writing touching on some transient little narratives.

Tracey, I agree that the characters lacked depth and complexity. Some people loved this book, but it was just too simple for me. I also agree about the weirdness of having sex scenes narrated by the son – that sort of thing shouldn’t happen. Thank you for your thoughtful comment – let’s hope our next read is better than this one!

Thanks Jackie.

I really felt the characters were cliched imaginary ideas of artists. It’s a bit like popular media representations of members of certain religious groups. Of course stereotypes do exist in every social group, but underneath that there are multifarious individuals.

I ran the notion of a son narrating a mother’s sex scenes past a good friend of mine who writes and is a university lecturer in english. Her response was blunt: “No that’s wrong. That should never happen.” Which of course was an observation rather than something she could enforce, but her reaction vindicated my disturbance.

I am rather liking Marina Lewycka’s new book at the moment – which I’ve had sitting around for a while and I began at great speed after An Equal Stillness to kind of exorcise it.

And, oddly, whenever I see the title written online lately I read it as: “An Equal Silliness” – which honestly isn’t intentional, it’s tired eyes.

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