"Why is it that women are always the ones being dragged off? Why aren't they the ones doing the clubbing and biting?"
Anne Charnock's 'Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind' is a wonderfully understated and meditative book about family, loss and the creative process. It is a deeply feminist work that looks at the inequalities faced by women in the past, present, and how this may change in the future. As well as that it is an ode to the people who have disappeared between the cracks of history, people who have died in accidents or been killed in war, but most of all the creative talents we have never heard about because of the barriers inherently sexist societies placed in the way of them becoming recognised artists. The author was kind enough to send me an ARC in return for an honest review.
'Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind' has a complex structure. The book follows two girls and one woman at different stages of their lives, in different parts of the world and in different eras. A hundred years in the future, Toniah has moved back into her family home with her sister Poppy while she starts her new job at the Academy of Restitution, an institute which works to restore and uncover the reputations of artists, philosophers and thinkers overlooked in their time because of their gender. In the present day, Toni is visiting China with her father, a painter being commissioned by a Chinese business man to paint a copy of a Paolo Uccello painting, while the two of them attempt to bond in the wake of her mother's death. And in Florence in the 1400s, Antonia Uccello, Paolo's daughter and an overlooked artist whose work today has disappeared, begins to paint under the tutelage of her father, whilst her parents and brother arrange her fate.
'Sleeping Embers' is very different from Charnock's previous book 'A Calculated Life' about enhanced humans, sharing only her enviable clarity of style and her ability to convincingly and engagingly chronicle the minutiae of daily life as it is lived. The focus on the personal allows her to bring alive the interior lives of these young women as they discover about themselves and find a way to square their relationship to the world around them through their art and their work. Though their storylines never overlap, they are linked through their shared themes and concerns, and by art itself. Antonia is drawn to painting through her natural talent and understanding of the medium, and her creative mind is able to not only absorb the lessons her father teaches her about creating a masterpiece but to move towards innovative leaps of technique and form. However because of the social environment of the time, her family have to decide between marrying her off young or sending her to a convent so that her nature as an unattached daughter won't ruin the family name. The book explores the ways left open to her for exploring her personal growth and development in a time and place where women's lives are so thoroughly restricted.
By moving between three different time periods, Charnock explores how life has changed for women since the 1400s, and her hopes and fears for the future. In the present day, Toni's world is much more open than Antonia's, as she visits China with her painter father and returns to her school in London, She is able to travel the world, and to freely pursue her creative interests. However Toni has just lost her mother in a car accident; her story is about her journey rebuilding her life around her mother's absence. This leads to her developing a school project about people who died young, truncating their branch of the family tree, which in turn causes her to discover her own great-great-uncle, Arthur, who was killed in World War I. However throughout her story, as she navigates the context of her world she naturally runs up against questions about how women have been perceived by society in the past and how they are now; whilst looking at a painting in the National Gallery, she finds herself noticing that the victims of the male centaurs in the painting are all women, and she quizzes her father on why he has never copied a painting by a female artist.
The sections in the 2100s allow the author to explore how life for women may change in the future. Toniah comes from a family where the women have reproduced via parthenogenesis, allowing all-female households like Toniah's to have their own children. When Toniah's mother was going to school there was still a level of stigmatism attached to this but by the time Toniah's niece is the same age it is fully accepted as a reproductive right and such families as an accepted social unit. The Academy of Restitution represents another progression, an institute designed to redress the balance of women like Antonia Uccello who never received the opportunities in their lifetime that their male counterparts would have, nor the academic respect in the years afterwards. Charnock uses the Academy and its work to explore how history's perception of individuals' contributions can frequently be biased by assumptions, gendered or otherwise. The influence of privilege allows mediocre white men to receive all the credit, whilst the contributions of women can be ignored or forgotten, (though Charnock points out that male artists can wind up on the receiving end of this as well). Toniah's work in the Academy allows us to see Uccello as an innovator with the potential to advance art beyond its then-current boundaries, if she'd had the opportunities closed to her gender, whilst showing Toniah's ambivalence towards the work as the act of rewriting history and the politics of the job make her uncomfortable.
Toniah's story thematically links to Toni's via the missing person she discovers in her family, her grandmother's son from a sperm donor who died in childhood, cementing her grandmother's decision to have her other children via parthenogenesis. Uncovering this family secret provides Toniah with the impetus to leave her family home again to seek out a new life lecturing in China. The themes of loss linking the three main characters also emphasise the universality of human experience; despite the radically different social contexts these three young women live in, their core humanity remains the same. Antonia, Toni and Toniah's character arcs are all about them coming to terms with the aspects of their surroundings and their lives that they can't change, and learning to exercise the agency that they have. They are also united by their appreciation of art. The book goes into great detail about the ins and outs of creating a masterpiece - the structure, the technique, the underlying message that the creator is trying to convey, and how they help the audience see this. 'Sleeping Embers...' is a celebration of the skill and invention that goes into the creation of a work of art, as well as the cathartic release that it brings to both artists and appreciator.
'Sleeping Embers...' is a work of slipstream fiction, having elements of speculative fiction, especially in the section set in the future, rather than being a work of genre fiction in and of itself. However it displays a deft touch at worldbuilding. The future UK of the 2100s is imaginatively evoked, with new technologies such as the gestation clinic described in detail, but other technologies that would shape the home and the workplace of the future hinted at and implied. Similarly, there is an unobtrusive but meticulous attention to detail that makes the scenes set in modern day Suzhou or 1400s Florence vivid and convincing. The book's approach to storytelling is character-based rather than plot based, eschewing action and movement for reflection and introspection, drawing the reader in and making them really care about what's going on in these characters' heads. The end result is a book that respects the reader enough not to lead them, but to let them make their own connections through the themes and ideas presented. 'Sleeping Embers...' is both thoughtful and moving, and unlike anything much other than itself.