The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood review – an absorbing insight into human creativity…

For The Guardian:

Note to all readers: keep going. I spent 137 pages of The Ecliptic thinking it was a very good but misconceived novel in which a talented male author had taken an artistically self-sabotaging decision to make his first-person protagonist – Elspeth Conroy, a Glaswegian painter – a woman with an oddly oblique antiquarian voice that even her own biography rendered suspect. It would ruin the plot if I were to tell you why my margin notes turned out not to be wholly germane. Suffice to say that the answers can be found in the fourth part, entitled “Clarity”, in which we learn how the scenes in the artists’ colony off the coast of Istanbul in parts one and three relate to Elspeth’s biography.

This is only Wood’s second novel – his first, The Bellwether Revivals, won the Commonwealth book prize – and as such, The Ecliptic represents a resounding achievement. Though I was not a huge fan of part one, it was everywhere apparent that Wood is the real deal: scrupulous in his choice of words, adroit with plot, assiduous about drawing character and engagingly pursuing an ambitious theme. On this last point, The Ecliptic is one of the most absorbing explorations of the artistic process that I’ve ever read in fiction – both in the painterly sense and in the wider psychological sense of how genuine day-in day-out creativity works. Or doesn’t. “Talent sinks,” Wood writes, “into the lightless depths like so much rope unless you keep a firm hold of it, but squeeze too tight and it will surely drag you under.”

And yes, Wood is startlingly good at conjuring images. Holden, Elspeth’s first teacher, would twist his ear “as though turning off a valve”. The love of her life – the sottish older artist Jim Culvers – is “not the sort of man for whom you felt an immediate attraction”, but “over time, he quietly detuned the strings of your heart, until his peculiar key became so familiar that you believed it to be the only one”. (I love how Wood rescues that cliche to create something moving, new and apposite.) Later, Elspeth will “wind in” her smile. These human moments are so very hard to write about inventively and attentively with any kind of freshness; but Wood does so often and deftly.

Walking with Karl

 

For Prospect Magazine

 

 

I am at the House of Commons. Karl lives less than three miles down the road. So I leave it late and I’m crossing the river on a bus when I get the message: “A very close friend of mine was stabbed severely in the chest yesterday and passed away an hour ago. I’m in the hospital now and won’t be able to meet with you today.”

The sun has fallen behind Westminster Abbey and the water below is the colour of charcoal. For half a minute, I think maybe Karl’s making it up because he’s changed his mind. Last time we met, he was shy and wary. I go through all the usual media organisations on my phone trying to find news of a stabbing and what is now a murder. It takes me almost 20 minutes to locate even a paragraph. Eventually, I have a name and a place: Dwayne Simpson, Brixton.

I find some words to text back to Karl, but even on my own screen, the exchange is unreal to me. Three days later, I receive the following: “The young man was more a brother than a friend and though the effect its had on me is unwordable, this pain must fuel a purpose.”

My purpose—my plan—had been to spend some time walking and talking with Karl through the streets, the scruffy asphalt parks and the estates of his childhood. I wanted to see our capital through the eyes of a man who for more than five years lived in the midst of intense physical violence.

Karl is 24 years old. He grew up in and around the Myatt’s Field estate in Brixton. His mother, Elizabeth, whom I later meet, is Ghanaian, like his father. She’s smiling, doting, warm, indulgent and cheerfully Christian. They moved to Britain about 30 years ago. In Ghana she was a teacher, but her qualifications were not recognised here, so she did various “hand to mouth” jobs and worked as a nurse. Karl’s father, whom he doesn’t want to name, “does a few jobs now, delivery work and security stuff.” He has one older brother who was in “some sort of menial job” the last time Karl heard about him.
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