“Write her life, they urged me, even at her graveside; noone but you should do it. Who better? You with your command of words, and besides, you were the closest.”
So begins Francesca Kay’s debut – a novel, written as a biography. Its subject is Jennet Mallow, a successful and acclaimed 20th century artist.
She grew up in Yorkshire in the 1920s, and learned at an early age that her artistic talent and dreams would set her apart from her family: her priest father, her resentful mother and her much more conventional sister.
Working as a land-girl in Cornwall during the war she encountered artistic communities for the first time and she realised that there was another way to live.
And so after the war she moved to London to go to art school. It was there that she met David Heaton, a rising star of the art world, and the man she would marry and have children with.
At first, David was at the centre of his social circle, while Jennet cast herself as his supporter,and struggled to balance the roles of wife, mother and artist in her own right.
But things changed. The family moved to Spain, in an attempt to escape the darkness and poverty of post war London. There Jennet found her inspiration and began to paint in earnest, while David lost his and began the descent into alcoholism and self-destruction.
And so it went on. Jennet’s star rose rises while David’s fell, and gradually thing fell apart. Life would never be easy for Jennet. There was always that balancing act, the difficulty of of living in a world dominated by men, and a world that did not judge men and women by the same standards.
The emotional truth of Francesca Kay’s story never falters and she uses language quite beautifully. However, the biographical style is sometimes a problem. I never doubted the truth of Jennet’s story but I did sometimes feel a little removed from it.
But it is the art that makes this book sing. Jennet’s story is rich with wonderful detailed descriptions of her art, in exquisite prose that really will paint pictures in your head.
“Ultramarine blue, Byzantine blue, cobalt, cerulean. Christening the sky with their precise richnesses of colour was like learning a new language, one she found she loved. She had not dared to think of art as a way of living. But now, here, suddenly, it struck her as the only way, the only way that she could say out loud what she knew she was worth…”
“This series is a kind of prayer, a glimpse of what infinity might look like. The shades of milky-white and grey, mothwing, oyster shell, sand, pale lilac, midnight-blue and inky black, are so subtle that their gradations can hardly be discerned, and yet it is clear from their slight stirrings and their iridescence where the air begins and where the water ends.”
To do that in a first novel is really quite extraordinary.