Benjamin Wood’s first novel, The Bellwether Revivals, was published in 2012, picked up good reviews, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize and has become a bestseller in France — a promising start to a literary career, in other words. Wood’s new novel The Ecliptic is both an attempt to consolidate the success of his debut and also a meditation, among other things, on how to sustain such a career over decades while producing original and important art.
On an island off the coast of Istanbul lies Portmantle, a remote community for painters, writers and musicians. The settlement provides a respite from the burden of creativity and the expectations of the world; it also strips the identities of its residents, assigning them new names and putting them under the control of a provost (shades of the Village in the 1960s television series The Prisoner, filmed in Portmeirion). The working lives of Portmantle’s willing exiles are disrupted by the arrival of a teenager named Fullerton. The mystery of who and what Fullerton may represent is the MacGuffin of The Ecliptic and is exploited deftly by Wood. Fans of Donna Tartt will enjoy this element of the novel as much as its enclosed intellectual setting.
However, the central character of The Ecliptic is not Fullerton but the painter Elspeth Conroy (‘Knell’ as she is renamed). The middle section of the book goes back in time to give an account of her early life and career and her rise through the London art world of the 1960s, prior to her retreat. This is exceptionally well done, a concentrated portrait of a lost time and place, so much so that I was almost disappointed when the novel reverted to the 1970s and the enigmatic Fullerton for its final third.
Novelists often co-opt other artistic disciplines when they wish to write about the trials of being a novelist, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so — Graham Greene’s rotten A Burnt-Out Case, about a depressed architect who flees to a Congolese leper colony and dies there, serves as a cautionary tale to all who attempt such an exercise. Fortunately, The Ecliptic is a far more entertaining and inspired prospect than that, asking searching questions about the mixed motivations of any artist at different moments in his or her life, all wrapped up in a mystery that remains tantalising enough to intrigue rather than frustrate the reader. At its best, Wood’s novel stands comparison with the work of John Fowles, a writer who withdrew to Lyme Regis and followed his muse faithfully to the end. It will be fascinating to see how Wood handles the same challenge.