When I saw Francesca Kay at the Contemporary Women Writers event during the Oxford Alumni Weekend last year, it seemed that she couldn’t quite believe that she belonged up there on the stage with Joanna Trollope and Clare Morgan. She prefixed her answers to the audience’s questions about her writing with “I’m so much of a beginner,” and “I speak from a position of such inexperience,” as though she wasn’t quite convinced that she was doing it right. In contrast, I found the writing style in her debut novel, An Equal Stillness, to be confident and self-assured. A fictional biography of artist Jennet Mallow, the book won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.
The prose in An Equal Stillness is beautifully poetic. I loved the rhythm created by the occasional repetition that linked sections of the narrative. Kay cites poetry as being an influence on her writing, “not in subject matter but in cadence. Lines of poems, lines from songs or even nursery rhymes that go round and round in my head. That’s what I aspire to recreate when I’m writing.” The rich and vibrant language in the novel evokes the world as an artist might view it, fragmented into planes of colour, texture, light and dark. “What a treasury of words I was allowed to plunder!” Kay said in an article in newbooks Issue 53. “Ultramarine, indigo, apricot and amber – so rich and beautiful they fill the mouth like cream…Describing paintings…gave access to a whole vocabularly, some of it technical and all of it precise, which I loved exploring.”
I found the characters and their motivations convincing even without the occasional reference from the ‘biographer’ to an exhibition catalogue or set of notes, thrown in to keep up the illusion that Jennet Mallow was indeed a real person. I therefore question whether this story needed to be told in the form of a biography. Inevitably, while reading the novel I was constantly trying to guess which of Jennet’s aquaintances was narrating. I was disappointed when the biographer finally and abruptly revealed their identity as I didn’t believe that this person could have had access to some of the intimate details that they were able to describe.