I approach any novel set in Istanbul with trepidation, ready for overbearing references to the sights and sounds of the city: bazaars, minarets, East-meets-West platitudes. I started reading Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic the same week I had been watching a new screen adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager: a story partly set in Istanbul and a production that ticks every single orientalist trope on the list. But Wood’s captivating novel is not set in Istanbul proper; it opens in Heybeliada, an island half an hour from the old town by ferry, where the usual visual shorthand for Istanbul’s exoticism may not be readily available. And in fact, after the Heybeliada opening, most of the novel takes place in London and Scotland, where our narrator Elspeth Conroy’s character and artistic sensibilities are formed. The shifting landscapes are the first of many disorientations that Wood sets up for his reader in this haunting narrative. Plot lines unravel; characters appear and disappear — the minute you think you’ve pinned them down, they turn out to be changelings.
The action is set in a remote artists’ colony called Portmantle; Elspeth is a muralist who has sought refuge after suffering acute artists’ block. Thwarted artists are accepted to the Portmantle sanctuary through a very secretive, highly vetted process of recommendation. They are told to get rid of their watches, burn their passports, and hold on to a single ferry token that will take them home once they have completed the artwork they have come to the island to finish. These are measures to try to defeat time; there is nothing as destructive to the creative process as a ticking clock. Wood is already luring us in: The artists have left their worlds behind, dear reader — escape into my fictional world and make time stand still for a while. Writing and painting have often been used as metaphors for one another; in The Ecliptic, painting is not the metaphor but the signified. The novel is above all concerned with the creative process, and the real and imagined obstacles artists struggle against.
From the very start Elspeth’s magnetic voice draws us into this space where time stands still, with elliptical sentences and vague references to the present day. Wood is very deft at establishing a sense of timelessness on the island; only after a dozen pages do we learn that that the story is set in the 1960’s. ‘The year I arrived was 1962, but since then I had watched so many winters frost the surrounding pines that they begun to blur into one grey season, as vast and misted as the sea,” Elspeth tells us. The novelist prudently avoids placing too many signposts to give period detail, a fallacy we see often in historical fiction. Wood is more interested in intricacies of human character, the artistic process, and the way we perceive time. When it comes, detail is very evocative in its subtlety: the indented ferry tokens, international calls that you have to put through an operator, the kind of tinned food that people had to make do with in London, transatlantic passages on ocean-liners as viable alternatives to flying.
Similarly, the setting is muted. A group of artists is working on an island which happens to be off the coast of Istanbul; the author is more interested in the demons they are fighting than he is in the skyline, and Wood is very good at painting artistic death-drive through the artists at the sanctuary. The conversations on the island are fueled by a Turkish beverage called sahlep, one of the few concessions that Wood makes to the setting. We hear the staff speak Turkish; there is backgammon playing, and some references to the food (and a blasphemy: some of the artists detest ayran, a national yogurt drink). The head of the community is a Provost speaking perfect English—the sort of person into whose making the whole of Europe seems to have contributed, like Conchis in John Fowles’s The Magus.
Everyone at Portmantle has a code name, so that expectations attached to real names, like passports, can be left behind. There are long-timers and short-timers on the island, and Elspeth, aka Knell, is one of the close-knit group of long-timers. These are all artists who have known success, many of whom believe that the best of their work are already behind them. Asking one another about the nature of their work, and particularly about “progress” is the highest taboo in the colony. Conversation are a strange, dreamy mix of expressions of desire to leave the island and fear of the real world beyond. At times it is unclear, even, whether they are on the island of their own volition.
Elspeth explores the pinewoods on the island and discovers a kind of mushroom that glows blue in the dark, adding to our sense of enchantment. Wood gives us an elaborate description of Elspeth’s trials and errors trying to make paint from these mushrooms, a commentary on an artist’s need for precision when it comes to the ingredient and medium. The paint she eventually produces helps her make a breakthrough with the mural project she’s trying to finish, a representation of the constellations commissioned by a planetarium. The book takes its name from the apparent trajectory the sun follows in the earth’s horizon, and Wood takes us on a beautiful diversion on astronomy, navigation, and movement. Elspeth’s voice when telling us about the ecliptic is dirge-like and incantatory, inviting us to feel like sailors who tell their positions by the stars, putting their trust in a virtual path. Taken with the ecliptic’s overall bearing on the story, the narrative becomes a poem about the different forms of traveling and staying put.
Into this odd, charged mix comes a young artist for whom Elspeth develops protective instincts. One night, she discovers him naked and semi-unconscious in the cupboard where she keeps her magic mushrooms. He is there and in that state not because he has sampled the flora but because he is a sleepwalker, a condition complicated by the nightmares he has when he wanders around the sanctuary half-asleep. This is a novel in which the novelist is always more than a few steps ahead of the reader, and by the time Wood reveals the identity of the mysterious boy, I had hatched all kinds of improbable theories.
But I seem to be marooned on the island myself– that’s the kind of place it is. Although the novel opens there, Elspeth soon turns the story to her formative years in Scotland and London. We see her defy the art school establishment with a little help from a professor, and become apprenticed to painter James Culver, a reluctant mentor who will become a life-long obsession. She starts life in London in an attic — we see what you did there, Wood — in the studio owned by Culver, a painter of the Francis Bacon school (picture empty chairs in glum rooms). We hop on the bus with Elspeth to run errands on the Marylebone High Street. It is a joy to travel on London buses with Elspeth as she describes the scenes before her, and talks us through how she transcribes her impressions onto the canvas. Shortly after she is commissioned to put on her own show through Culver’s influence, he disappears from the London art scene, and her life, leaving her without her father figure and muse.
‘Though all artists strive for recognition, they cannot foresee how it will come to them or how much they will compromise to maintain success,” Elspeth pronounces as she tells us about her days without Culver. We see her once experimental and visceral art become commodified in the London art scene. Despite her commercial success, the lack of an immediate, intimate relationship with a truthful fellow artist leaves her lost. Her descent into despair is precipitated by an unfortunate adventure with the critic Wilfred Searle, whose observations cut too close to the bone: “You need critics like me,” he says “or nobody will notice what you paint.” Not long after a night of “love” which neither of them enjoy, and a subsequent scathing review by Searle, Elspeth has a breakdown on an ocean-liner en route to New York, where she hopes she may find Culver. She is saved from utter destruction by a psychiatrist on board, Victor, who is the most benevolent character in the novel and who, from the moment he opened his mouth, I imagined as being played by Hugh Bonneville. Much as I appreciated Victor’s calm voice, it did feel like Elspeth was being passed from one man to another, from art school professor, to master/muse, to critic, to shrink.
Elspeth gets a second chance with Culver. After a brief period of happiness and clarity, the ellipsis and the ecliptic make themselves felt again: there are holes in both Elspeth’s and Culver’s stories of the time they were apart; the oblique trajectories they narrate to one another don’t quite seem to add up as they head for another separation. Their time together remind us that the mind is really a lonely hunter, how it builds whole worlds out of fragments chanced upon in disparate places. When the narrative returns to Portmantle we also see how, inadvertently, people can become the stuff of one another’s nightmares.
Elspeth’s narrative carries the reader effortlessly from Heybeliada to Scotland to London to New York and back to Heybeliada again. Her cadence goads you on to the next sentence, makes you loath to put down the book and break the melody. Her voice reminded me of Serena Fromme in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (perhaps there is a particular manner in which male authors assume female voices that draws in the female reader). Like an artist working toward some final, perfect expression, the novel’s incantatory tones make you believe that if you persevere with the tale, it will reveal to you the secret at its center. But the secret turns out to be one we already know: that sanctuaries that we seek out or build for ourselves are vulnerable to the demons we take with us wherever we go.