Portmantle – part artist’s colony, part refuge – the setting of Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic,” is on an island in the Sea of Marmara, reachable only by ferry from Istanbul. It’s a dreamy place removed from the world, where artists and writers, architects and playwrights can go to finish work away from the cares and distractions of the world. Visitors give up passports, money, and their identities when they arrive. The Provost, a benign despot who runs the place on behalf of a foundation, provides meals, mail, and materials. Most visitors come, finish their projects, and leave after a celebratory reading or viewing. But there are a couple of long-stayers, and the character we know as Knell, the first-person narrator of Benjamin Wood’s novel, is one of them.
Knell and her three close companions, also long-stayers, don’t mix much with the transients, who come from all over the world. “It was our judgment that the duration of a stay at Portmantle was equivalent to the value of the work being done: if you were gone after one season, it was likely because your project could not sustain a greater period of gestation.” This cozy world is disrupted by the arrival of a very young man named Fullerton, who arrives cold, seasick, hostile, and possibly mad. The Provost has asked Knell and the other three long-stayers to help Fullerton settle in, but Fullterton throws off their attempts. (It’s a curiosity of Portmantle that the Provost assigns a pseudonym to all visitors.)
Knell is a painter, and has found a trove of glowing mushrooms that she dries and uses to tint her paint, searching for an elusive effect. Fullerton’s arrival has struck a chord, and after she finds him destroying his work she pieces it back together while narrating her own history: her upbringing in a working-class household in Glasgow, escape to art school, assistant to a painter, and success on her own terms, ending with a commission she can’t finish and the invitation to Portmantle. When Fullerton dies, Knell knows that it is time to leave, and decides that rather than leave openly, she’ll have to escape.
Wood describes life at Portmantle in great detail: the setting, the cottages, the meals, the staff, and the pace of the early part of the narrative is slow (the book is over 450 pages long). Things pick up markedly once Knell relates her history. Parts of “The Ecliptic” are very good, including Wood’s descriptions of Knell’s creative process and her thoughts. Wood has an effective way of capturing a character with a small quirk or gesture. Fullerton, for instance, after suggesting he’s giving away a pack of cigarettes to Quickman, an architect, throws what turns out to be an empty pack at him. Quickman, Knell tells us, “pulled out the foil lining and scrunched it in his fist. ‘I won’t lie: that’s a blow to morale.’ And the boy smiled at last.” Wood brings the various threads together into an entirely unforeseen (though the careful reader may pick up hints that Knell is not the most reliable of narrators) conclusion.
Alexandra Bowie is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917.