Thursday, 13 January 2011

Keeping the World Away ~Margaret Forster

So, there I was with my reading list for January drawn up and the books already taken down from the shelves and left in a pile in the middle of the study floor where I would fall over them every day until I'd work my way through them and what happened? Well, the inevitable really. I went along to my library group last Wednesday and someone waved a book I'd been wanting to read for ages in front of my eyes. Reading resolution number one shattered.

The book was Margaret Forster's 2006 novel, Keeping the World Away. It came out at a time when reading anything more complicated than the Beano Annual was beyond me and so, even though Forster is one of my favourite novelists, I missed out on it first time round. It was, however, despite some reservations, worth waiting for and definitely worth destroying my nicely drawn up reading schedule to fit in now.

Keeping the World Away is primarily the story of a picture. I assume of this picture on the right. Painted by Gwen John during her early years in Paris and at a time when she was infatuated with the sculptor, Rodin, it is depicted in the book as her attempt to capture a moment and place of quietude, to present Rodin with evidence that she has conquered the passionate nature that makes her a difficult person to live with.

The novel then follows the fortune of the painting as it makes its way from owner to owner and fills each woman who comes into prolonged contact with it with a need to try and find for themselves the quiet world it seems to present, a world in which they are free to develop as artists without having to give up their desires for the demands of family and societal expectations. But, woman after woman is forced to face either their own lack of ability or their lack of freedom to follow a path that is seen as being not quiet the thing for one of their sex.

In one sense this is a book about the way in which life has different expectations of a woman, expectations that make it impossible for her to develop a career that demands total absorption on the part of those that take it up, while a man can more easily follow that path. However, I think there is more to it than that. One woman, Lucasta, does forge a career as an artist but in order to maintain that life she has to give up her other relationships. While this might just be seen as another manifestation of the imbalance that makes it impossible for women to experience more than one life, the existence that Lucasta has and the way in which her personality develops forced me at least to question just what sort of life anyone has who becomes obsessed with something in the way that an artist has to. I know it wouldn't have been a life I would have wanted.

I always enjoy books that move through generations as this does and I would have been placing this high on my list of best reads had it not been for a couple of small, but nevertheless irritating, gripes. Firstly, I wasn't convinced by the way in which the picture moved from owner to owner. The 'need' on Forster's part to create a link between the people who found the work began to feel very contrived. The story would have held together just as well without those links.

The other point that worried me was to do with how well the writer had done her background research. It always concerns me when I come across an error of fact that I am sure about because then I worry about all those facts that I've taken for granted and can't check. In this case it is what she has to say about one of the characters, Sam, who is at the fall of Singapore and then incarcerated in a POW camp. She talks of the fifteen months between his sister hearing from him and the war ending. In fact, Singapore fell in February 1942 and the men who were captured there were not back in England until November 1945. While their relatives in the UK heard from the Red Cross as to their wellbeing on a six monthly basis, there was no direct contact. Believe me, I know, I've lived with the aftermath of this all my life. It doesn't take much to check that sort of thing out and I wish Forster had taken just that bit more care with what is otherwise a very good read.



  1. I've not read anything by Forster, but I love the idea of a story tied together by a painting. It's too bad that the links didn't work for you. I wonder if it would have worked better as a book of short but tenuously connected stories that all featured the painting.

  2. Possibly, Erin, but I think that would have missed some of what Forster was trying to say about the continuity of the woman's position. If you haven't wad her before, try her most recent book, 'Isa and May', which looks at the role of the grandmother in the development of the granddaughter. I really enjoyed that.