Anne Charnock‘s first novel, A Calculated Life, is one of my favourite novels I’ve read this year. So I was very excited to get a review copy of her latest novel, courtesy of 47 North via NetGalley, which was published on 1 December.
Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is a braided story about three women. Antonia is the daughter of Paolo Uccello, a noted Renaissance Italian painter. Toniah is an art historian with an interest in that period, involved in an organisation that works on revisionist histories of art to bring to greater prominence the role of female artists. Set in the future, she is the result of parthenogenetic reproduction (a clone, to you and me). And Toni is a teenage girl, whose widowered father makes his living as a professional copyist of the works of others. Most recently, he has been commissioned to reproduce one of Paolo Uccello’s most famous paintings.
It would be easy to see Sleeping Embers as ‘just’ a feminist novel. Antonia Uccello was a real person. She became a nun, and is recorded as an artist, but none of her work survives. Charnock imagines what her life must have been: the talented daughter of a noted artist who, because of the strict gender roles of her time would be unable to pursue her art without the comparative freedom a wealthy woman in a convent could attain. Toniah is very explicitly made an art historian who specialises in that period of Italian art. She is employed by an organisation whose mandate is one that Gerda Lerner would identify as ‘compensatory history‘: the retrospective identification of notable women from the past who have made contributions equivalent to those of men, albeit within the context of strict gender roles. But that organisation seems more interested in destroying the reputation of notable men than identifying and advancing knowledge of previously unknown female artists.
But Sleeping Embers is a much more nuanced novel than this. It deals compellingly with the consequences of those absent from our lives: the gaps they create and how people’s actions are shaped by loss and the missing. Toni and her father are working through the tragic consequences of the loss of her mother in a car accident, seeking to rebuild their family without her. Toni’s school history project explicitly charts families who lost relatives too soon (albeit that in many cases people instinctively leap to men killed in combat rather than women dying in childbirth). Toniah unravels the mystery of her own heritage: the loss that made her grandmother choose to become an early adopter of parthenogenetic reproduction.
As with A Calculated Life, Sleeping Embers is a tautly written novel. It is more explicitly literary, with only Toniah’s parthenogenetic heritage nodding to genre, but it is thought-provoking and very well-crafted.
Goodreads rating: 4*