If you’re thinking the Romantic myth of the suffering artist is dead and gone—well, think again. English novelist Benjamin Wood embraces the bluesy old song with gleeful gusto and uninhibited nostalgia in his second novel, The Ecliptic. His artist-heroine is as suffering as they come. Born into postwar, working-class Glasgow, Elspeth “Ellie” Conroy has to achieve her vocation as a painter against considerable odds, not least of which is her striking beauty.
Ellie tells her own tale, expressing at least two or three times on every page the terms of her self-doubt or self-loathing. As an ambitious woman in the patriarchal London art world of the early 1960s, she must define herself in the shadow of mentors, dealers, critics, lovers and psychiatrists. Sometimes these roles coalesce into a single figure. No matter if these fellows are good or bad; the point is that they make her suffer, driving her to extremes of self-injury and psychological ruin, paralyzing her even as she is on the verge of a breakthrough (the “ecliptic” of the title serves as the elusive image of this goal).
All of this sounds archetypal enough; but Wood has an ace up his narrative sleeve that pushes the novel into uncanny territory—namely, an island off the coast of Turkey, where suffering artists (a whole colony of them!) are sent by their sponsors in order to recapture their wayward muse. Portmantle is the name of the colony, a dream haven, a sort of purgatory where world-famous writers, painters, architects—and, crucially, a 17-year-old graphic novel genius—can burn off the sins of their aesthetic excesses or failures of artistic nerve. Here, Ellie seems to be on the path to reclamation. But it’s just one more detour into the inevitable inferno of being an artist. The enchanted reader of Wood’s novel cannot help feeling that if Elspeth Conroy had only put as much painstaking artfulness into her painting as she has given to writing her own life, she could have been another Picasso.
Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.