In her very first words in Josephine Hart's The Stillest Day, Bethesda Barnet states simply to her readers, to those who would judge her that for the first 30 years of her life she led a pious and steady life. Then one day she turned her back on piety, acting on some primeval urge that even 30 years of steadiness could not snuff out. The novel follows a path backward from this starting point. We learn that Bethesda Barnet is an art teacher in a small English town at the turn of the century who cares for her ailing mother, allows herself to be courted by a respectable man, and paints in her spare hours. She is a woman who knows the confines of her limited role in life and stays within them.
Then one day during a rain shower, Bethesda glimpses the school's newest teacher, Mathew Pearson. That one glimpse is enough to unmoor her. Obsessed, she paints Mathew's face upon mirrors and gazes into those mirrors so as to join her image with his. The arrival of Matthew's pregnant wife, Mary, does not quell Bethesda's passions; she simply hides her unhinging in more clever ways. Mary, cheerful and maternal her thoughts as transparent as Bethesda's are hidden strikes up a friendship with Bethesda's ailing mother. And it is during one of Mary's visits to the Barnet household that Bethesda commits the act that will alter her life forever. It's an act that's essentially merciful; yet in the eyes of the town, it infringes upon the powers reserved for God. How dare Bethesda Barnet a woman take the powers of life and death into her own frail hands?
Like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Bethesda will be scorned and feared the rest of her life for her actions. Unlike Hester Prynne, though, Bethesda's act leaves her free to be the woman she becomes, for better or for worse. Less and less a teacher and daughter, Bethesda becomes fully a painter, her canvasses evolving from still lifes of church and town to the surreal. In her love for Mathew, she grows fierce and hard. In short, Bethesda Barnet becomes a dangerous woman. So she is sent away to an island, where both she and the book turn haunting and strange.
The Stillest Day is a mysterious, challenging novel. On a theoretical level, it has plenty to say about women's issues. Purely on a visceral level, it's a moving story. Bethesda is one of the more interesting narrators to surface in a long while. As she says of herself on the book's first page: Nothing in my past could have prepared me for what it is that I became.
Laura Wexler is a reviewer in Athens, Georgia.