With a title that recalls Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), but with a structural concept that’s more reminiscent of the Mrs. Dalloway-inspired novel, The Hours (1998), Anne Charnock’s latest employs a layered, parallel structure that follows three generations of women whose divergent lives converge at the presence and suppression of art, addressing the erasure of female artists from historical memory. A low burn, yet smolderingly feminist, Sleeping Embers highlights the progress of change in women’s lives over the centuries, as well as the hidden corners of stagnation.
The central narrative is that of Antonia Uccello, the real-life daughter of renowned Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello. Antonia is an artist herself, though we only know that by the occupation listed on her death certificate, as none of Antonia’s works have been discovered to this day. Charnock takes advantage of this lack of information about Antonia’s life to fictionalize her story and to advance her argument about the willing social neglect of women artists—and women, in general.
On the present-day side of that narrative is another teenage girl, Toni, a bereaved daughter who accompanies her widower father, an accomplished copy artist, on a business trip. In her spare time, she bedazzles denim jackets. (Oh, god, don’t tell me that fashion is coming back. NOBODY tell mom!)
In future 2115, Toniah lives with her parthogenetic sister and niece as she works as an art history restitutionist, restoring marginalized painters to history while reassessing the legacies of celebrated painters. Her focus is on the suspicious similarities between the works of Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard, yet she seems ashamed of her job, and, strangely, resistant to assisting the Academy’s restitution efforts, which she calls an “agenda” (loc. 654).
But, as Kate MacDonald points out, Charnock has her work cut out for her here, given the vast contrast between style and content, a similar issue with her previous novel, A Calculated Life (2013). In content, both novels examine psychological and social elements through the guise of futurism (and historicism, in the case of parts of Sleeping Embers), but she writes with the prose style of a novel aiming for less responsibility. In some ways, this seems to be a sneaky way to insert some social dynamism into the genre world, but the wooden style might chase off would-be (appreciative) literary readers. While A Calculated Life (2013) and its android protagonist can get away with a stiff delivery, which is almost Asimovian in tone, it’s a different story for Sleeping Embers, which draws its plot from art: the life of the artist, the copy-artist’s daughter, and the revisionist. One might expect some fancy-schmancy prose style or something.
But it’s going to be a case of forest versus the trees: genre readers won’t see the forest, and literary readers won’t like the trees. Where its structural predecessor, The Hours, pays heed to its stream-of-consciousness inspiration, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Sleeping Embers must pay heed to its artistic inspiration: the neglected and forgotten works of the cloistered and short-lived Antonia Uccello, who was, like her father, likely a pioneer in linear perspective. Flat affect with the illusion of reality. Which can feel quite genre when put into words:
Aurelia Tett, project head for the Gauguin reassessment team, has a larger-than-average cubicle. It’s so Spartan that Toniah decides the woman’s not an academic, though she knows she shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Tett is engrossed in a projected spreadsheet, so Toniah knocks, in the absence of a door, on the cubicle wall.
‘Ms. Tett, I’ve been asked to see you by Elodie Maingey… I’m Toniah Stone.’ (loc. 526)
‘It’s likely to be a two-egg process, one more mature than the other. I told them I’ve joined a partho household.”
‘So they didn’t discuss donor semen or artificial Y?’ says Toniah.
“No, I just said I’d prefer to go partho.”
Poppy presses her hands flat between her knees and leans forward. “And what about the baby’s gestation, Carmen? Have you discussed that with the clinic?” (loc. 684)
It’s not pretty— particularly in the Toniah strand, which, I admit, I recoiled at times— but flat affect is what needs to happen to buoy Charnock’s argument. Based on the blurbs, one might expect a fancifully artful, psychological exploration of the stories of these three women, but Sleeping Embers is served without any emotional or poetic punch. Instead, Charnock stays true to that stiff Asimovian style from A Calculated Life, which— at first— feels less appropriate here, for a work that draws its inspiration from art. Some might complain that it’s too unemotional, too unrealismic (not a typo), too generically distant to satisfy potential metaphorical goals, that’s only until the reader begins to recognize these women as products of their social roles. (And besides, Renaissance art can be pretty damn rigid and unemotional– I know, not always, shut up.) The limited affect, that deliberate, controlled, present-tense narrative behavior is perfectly appropriate for these women whose lives are rigidly structured to not upset the people around them. It’s a reminder that this a learned behavior for women that’s been socially-rewarded for generations and generations, much like those facially aloof portrait paintings of the early Renaissance.
Some readers might interpret Sleeping Embers as an optimistic novel that highlights the vast progress of women’s lives over these centuries, but that’s an obvious observation and certainly doesn’t require a novel to point it out. More subtly, Charnock is highlighting the insidious similarities between these three women, living centuries apart, all of whom undergo major lifestyle changes that result from or as a response to social and filial pressures. This novel speaks of the covert tyranny of social and family systems on women’s lives over past centuries and what it might look like beyond today: the probable territorial treatment of a Renaissance woman as property, the maternal obligations of a modern teen girl to her widower father (she won’t even leave his side during a boring business meeting), and the restrictive structure of the evolved future family, where potential lovers are assessed and discussed like a home remodeling purchase. For better and for worse, women’s lives are strictly connected to and shaped by their family and social roles.
Yet, important as they are to their families, they will be forgotten to society, these ordinary female minds—a hypocrisy apparent even in their own behaviors. In their own researches, both present-day Toni and future-tomorrow Toniah drop female research threads for more comfortable, more malleable male threads. While Toniah wrinkles her nose at the Academy’s efforts to reassess male celebrity artists and uncover the legacies of neglected women artists, she pursues her own restitution of yet-another-male-artist. In her personal life, she joins her sister in an attempt to crack the mystery of the photograph (as ancient by her chronological standards as portrait paintings are to us today) of the anonymous boy in her matrilineal grandmother’s lap. Meanwhile, present-day Toni asks her father, “…Have you ever copied a painting by a female artist?” to which he replies “No, I haven’t.” (loc. 2223), and she expresses disappointment that “twelve of the fourteen dead relatives are men” in her Dead Relatives- Persons Unknown Project, wishing “someone would send her a woman who died in childbirth—to make the point that in the old days, young women didn’t have to go to war to end up in a coffin” (loc. 2509). But while she laments at the forgotten women in history, she and her father wind up visiting the coffin of a dead uncle—a soldier. Her mother’s death being too close to discuss because she can’t upset her father, but her dead grandmother being too–? Her dead great-grandmother being too–? Her great-aunt being too–? And her closing scene a veneration of forgotten dead male soldiers in a cemetery set aside especially for those forgotten dead male soldiers. Toni and her father never see the irony, and I don’t think many readers or critics did either, or Sleeping Embers would have been gotten more notice this year.
With heavy hammer blows, Donato nails his panel into the dowry chest; his self-portrait faces into the chest. (loc. 3000). (The start of the final chapter, evoking a nails-in-the-coffin moment of Antonia Uccello’s career as she gets thee to a nunnery.)
Both Toniah and Toni are reflections of different, but ultimately similar, social responses: “We mustn’t destroy the legacy of men while uncovering the legacies of women” and “This forgotten man must be remembered!” not much at odds with the other too-common belief that “If she isn’t remembered, it’s probably because she wasn’t important enough to be remembered.” At the same time, both women perpetuate the same pressures that have shaped women’s lives and legacies for centuries, as witnessed even in the early chapters, when Toni and her father dine in Pudong (one of my favorite scenes, full of subtext):
‘Did you see her shirt?’ Her dad tries to catch sight of the waitress. ‘Can you see? It’s totally creased. Looks like it’s been stuffed in a bag for two years.’
Another waitress rushes past, wearing a similarly creased shirt of the same gunmetal grey. ‘How do they manage that?’ says Toni.
There’s more to say: the subtextual and interrupted father-daughter banter, the vague near-futurism (“Beijing isn’t Mars” (loc. 2449) could mean anything), the genetic theory, but any reader will notice these things and enjoy them at once. The feminist elements of Sleeping Embers of the Ordinary Mind are elusively contradictory, so much like life!, making this one of those thinking books—the kind with embers smoldering until a second visit. I look forward to more from Anne Charnock.
Next post: yet-another book review about a male writer I wish more people would pay attention to, after which I will
talk shit about reassess yet-another-male-writer who gets too much attention.