Anne Charnock must have been SO ANNOYED when Ali Smith’s prize-winning, multiply lauded novel How to be both hit the bookshelves in 2014. This is because her own novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, published on 1 December, shares the same central, unusual conceit, of a medieval Italian artist who has to struggle against the rules about women to succeed and be fulfilled as a painter. Smith’s novel also shares Charnock’s idea of telling the story through parallel narratives set in the present-day and in historical mode: oh, the irritation … This past twelve months, while Charnock completed her novel, had it accepted, and saw it through production, must have required sustained self-confidence in her right to tell the story she had first thought of, even though someone else had had the same idea just a little bit earlier. I’m impressed also that 47North, her publisher, had the confidence in Charnock as a writer to keep going with Plan A and not demand that she rewrote the story with aliens or a Palaeolithic setting. (47North is an imprint for science fiction, acquired by Amazon in 2011.)
Now that we’ve ushered the elephant out of the room, let’s talk about Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. It’s very good, no question. I’ve not read Charnock’s first novel, A Calculated Life, which was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for a debut novel in speculative fiction, but now I really want to (shame on you, Forbidden Planet, for not having it in stock when I looked last week). However, I don’t think Sleeping Embers is going to be shortlisted for many prizes because it combines science fiction and historical fiction in a way that will probably not be acceptable to the bookselling and prize-winning niches that we are expected to adhere to in our reading tastes. She uses three parallel strands of narrative to tell the story of women and men who slip out of memory, and how their memory is maintained. One is in fifteenth-century Italy, where the great artist Uccello finds a way to let his most talented child Antonia remain an artist in a society in which women must get married, to a man or to Christ. The second is in the present day, in which the teenage Toni is layering memories and new experiences in embroidery and art history to stop remembering her mother’s death. The third is set in the 22nd century where art historian Toniah is finding ways to make her own life by leaving her institutionalised job and her parthogenetic household.
The three names are similar, but they don’t connect: there is no link between these characters in blood, only in the ideas they have, and by Toni and Toniah finding out about Antonia Uccello’s forgotten and hidden life and art. The connections between the three narratives are linked by the theme of unfinished or untold lives. Antonia slips out of her family into a convent’s seclusion, and nearly kills herself painting. Toni and her father find the wartime grave of her forgotten great-great uncle whom her mother never knew. Toniah and her sister Poppy track down their mother’s oldest friend to ask about the small boy in the photo on their mother’s lap. He is another dead uncle, and another life only traceable because someone took his picture.
The strongest aspect of Sleeping Embers is how it uses art to give people’s lives meaning and justification, as well as to connect them to the families which have lost them. Sleeping Embers is really three intertwining novellas with a lot to say about what we leave behind us. The few science-fiction details in Toniah’s story are beautifully handled: parthogenesis as an expensive, new but socially acceptable way of having children; old people in rest homes can buy avatars to replay their memories to keep them company; and email arrives retinally. They are details that lift the story into the future very effectively. Likewise, Antonia’s story is a work of delicate and detailed historical imagination, beautifully done, compellingly told. If I’d been Charnock’s editor, I’d have suggested keeping those two strong and indelible narratives and ditching Toni’s story, which is rather too much of a lesson on how to read paintings, and not as compellingly relevant to the theme of missing lives. I want to know much more about Toniah’s backstory and future, and why her century isn’t over-crowded or apocalyptic. I also want to read more about Antonia’s manically paint-spattered room and how she fitted into the convent, and for how long. Charnock is an expert novelist, in both genres. I admire her combining the two in Sleeping Embers, and can see the patterns that she wants us to notice. It will be fascinating to see which directions she turns to next.
Anne Charnock, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (2015, 47North), ISBN 978-1503950436, available in paperback as well as e-book versions.