Benjamin Wood is one of those authors that you must read, if you wish to keep abreast of C21st century literature. His first novel, The Bellwether Revivals, certainly attracted a great deal of attention, being nominated for the Costa First Book Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize. This novel, The Ecliptic, is all the proof we need that such attention was not a mistake.
This is a trip into the mind of Elspeth Conroy, a Scottish artist of the middle of the Twentieth Century and it takes us, the readers, into some very strange places indeed. It begins with the arrival of Fullerton into the enclosed artistic community of Portmantle, on an island in the Sea of Marmara, just off the coast from Istanbul. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Constantinople, not that Wood ever uses the name. This is a place of mystery, of imagination, of the sacred. It is a place where people attempt to come to terms with their souls, their inner being, their whole understanding of their place in the Universe.
This is why the novel has its name. The Ecliptic is an imaginary line, like the Equator. But it is not an imaginary line drawn around the earth, equidistant from the two poles. It is an imaginary line drawn by the progress of the Sun around the Earth. Which does not exisr, because the Earth circles the Sun. The idea of the Ecliptic was conceived before Copernicus discovered that the Earth circles the Sun, not vice versa. It is simply wrong, and does not exist. But it is an intellectual attempt to understand the world that we live in. And that is the subject of this book – an attempt by individuals like Elspeth Conroy to understand their situation, even as they are suffering from nervous collapse.
Portmantle is a place where creative artists can go, when they have suffered a complete block, and cannot progress with their creativity any further. It is a refuge, a sanctuary, a prison, a place of rehabilitation if that is possible. It is not a place where people can be easy. Fullerton is certainly not easy, and his unease is conveyed to us through Elspeth Conroy.
It becomes necessary for us to discover something about Conroy’s earlier life as a successful, but dissatisfied, living artist in London to find out what is going on. We have to learn about her life in Scotland, as a child and as a student at the Glasgow School of Art, and of her relationships with men, especially Jim Culvers in London. What becomes clear is that Conroy has had some kind of nervous collapse, which is why she has ended in Portmantle.
What is not clear is why she is there, or, rather, what her purpose is in being there, what she thinks she can achieve. But that is precisely what Wood intends. Because if it was clear, there would be no story for Wood to tell. And Wood is a consummate storyteller, leading us ineluctably from scene to scene, development to development as the story unfolds around us, the readers.
To go any further into the nature of Portmantle would seriously undermine the power of this story. It is sufficient to say that Portmantle is a mystery. And that is all you need to know.
Wood has written a novel that has shone a light into the dark recesses of the human psyche, that explores what we call the soul. It is a novel of extraordinary precision. It will make you uncomfortable. It will make you squirm. It will make you think. And it will teach you about the nature of humanity.
This is a novel not to be missed by anyone who seeks to understand what we call “the human condition”.