From one (admittedly simple) perspective, art can be divided into two parts: the internalized (what is created or enjoyed for individual satisfaction) and the externalized (what is bought/sold, exhibited, studied, discussed, and passed on through time by society). Both are highly dependent on the fact a means is available. Without materials or access, an individual cannot create or partake in art, just as without sponsorship, research, knowledgeable persons, public venues, etc. art is not integrated into society at large. Inject gender into these two halves of a whole and you’ve got the delicate, intelligent workings of Anne Charnock’s wonderful second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (2015, 47North).
On the surface, Sleeping Embers is the story of three iterations of young women. Real-life daughter to the fifteenth century Italian master painter Paolo Uccello, young Antonia looks ahead to her adult life with trepidation. Despite showing promising talent, painting is a limited option to females of the era. A life in the cloisters of a nunnery or as a dowried wife to a nobleman are her only options. Living in contemporary UK, Toni is a thirteen-year old girl on a trip with her father, a skilled copyist, to China for a proposed commission. Her mother having died in a car accident a few months back, she and her father are trying to get their lives back together with just the two of them. And in the early twenty-second century, Toniah is starting post-graduate work in art history at a university in London. Middle daughter in a parthenogenetic (all-female) family, she attempts to apply her knowledge of quattrocento art in women’s restitution studies, but meets some resistance. The discovery of a never before seen painting by one Antonia Uccello, however, changes her luck.
Below the surface, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is a quietly challenging novel that works with the internalized and externalized elements of art, and art theory in the framework of gender relations and parity. Part historical fiction, contemporary realism, and humanist science fiction, the novel eases through three windows in the lives of the women, exploring the aspects of art and gender inherent to the situation of each. The differences between the eras making a huge difference to the tangible aspects of their lives, tucked subtlety into the three stories is the interaction of the internalized and externalized elements—the point where Sleeping Embers shines its intangibly brightest.
The three women’s lives can be compared and contrasted from many interesting angles. Antonia faces the prospect of living out the majority of her days in an all-female institution at the bidding of her father and pressure from society while Toniah is raised in an all-female family at the bidding of her mother and the possibility of future science. Both Antonia and Toni have fathers who encourage their creative tendencies, but in eras wherein social mores regarding female creativity are of very different perspectives. Toniah lives at a time when women’s scholarship is a wide-open road, whereas Antonia must fight for every tiny scrap of freedom she can get, the difference drastically affecting their worldviews. Antonia and Toni are raised in traditional nuclear families, whereas Toniah’s is female-only, something which likewise has an interesting effect on attitude and perspective. And perhaps most interesting of all is the three different modes of interaction each women has with art, from the personally creative to the scholarly. All in all, the spectrum of women’s lives in the political and creative arenas across historical, modern, and futuristic contexts provides the reader an engaging palette of ideas to examine with and against one another.
James Tiptree Jr. is often lauded as one of the great feminist sf writers, and from several perspectives the praise is worthy. However, there is much of Tiptree Jr.’s fiction that is suspicious, fearful, even paranoid of gender relations. Her male characters often portrayed as raping malcontents, the sexes are presented perpetually at odds. With the concept of women’s restitution, Charnock had the opportunity to take the “oversights of male-centric historicism” and convert it into a Tiptree Jr. flame-fest. She doesn’t, and the result is a more universal flow of scenes and situations that fit within a practical social outlook. Soap box left in the closet, Charnock offers her genderized material to the reader and allows them to discuss what the inherent angles, implications, and ideas at work might be. Elegantly restrained, Sleeping Embers is not a work of overt feminism, rather a novel that bridges feminism to humanism. Several niches of contemporary science fiction nowadays occupied with simply replacing the traditional male hero with a female one, the left turn into humanism via realistically realized female characters is a welcome one.
Sleeping Embers prose is colder than warmer, yet still successfully conveys its concepts and emotions through effective scene setting and properly located events and circumstance. But for as evocative the minimalism and generally consistent the technique are, there nevertheless is the occasional hiccup. The following passage demonstrates:
“…Father, may I ask… when will the wooden chest arrive?”
He bangs the table with his fist. “Is there nothing sacred in this house? Can’t I mention the least matter without the whole of Via del Scala knowing my business by vespers?” He walks slowly towards her and places his hand on her shoulder. “If you must know, it will arrive next week.” (108)
The writing at times a touch stilted, the change of heart in the middle of the second paragraph would be less abrupt with the addition of a brief transitory phrase, like: “Uccello releases a sigh, and walks slowly...” or “Her father relaxes his fist, and walks slowly...” As its stands, his walk toward Antonia is filled with unintended menace. There are other moments in the text when Charnock does not fully trust her readers, and takes a moment to explain a detail that is obvious in context. In a group of people a nun utters the Shakespearean: “I see your daughter is still keeping you company” to Tomasa, implying Antonia should be out of the home—a fact obvious given the context of the meeting. Yet Charnock takes a few lines to explain to the reader that meaning. This occasional imbalance—sprinkles of unnecessary text compared to sprinkles of missing text—could have been better smoothed over, enhancing the effective and affective minimalist tone sought in the process.
But I’m being picky. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is certainly one of 2015’s tip-top releases in science fiction. A literary text that dabbles in historical, mimetic, and near-future scenarios, it presents windows into the lives of three different women, highlighting the recognition they do or don’t receive for their work, as well as the personal and societal contexts which motivate them to creativity and study. Delicately outspoken, Charnock does not bang a feminist gavel, but instead lets the events and settings of her characters’ lives do the talking, and in the process gives the reader unpretentious material to ponder over. A mellifluously challenging book—like its exquisite title, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is one to look for.