Benjamin Wood’s mesmerising novel The Ecliptic is a rich and immersive story of love, obsession, creativity and disintegration.
On a forested island off the coast of Istanbul stands Portmantle, a gated refuge where a curious assembly of painters, architects, writers and musicians strive to restore their faded talents. Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy is a celebrated painter who has lost faith in her ability and fled the dizzying art scene of 1960s London, and the people she is close to: her tough, charismatic mentor Jim Culvers, her attentive psychiatrist Victor Yail, and her meddling gallerists, Dulcie and Max. On the island, she spends the nights locked in her studio, testing a strange new pigment for an elusive masterpiece.
Then, a disaffected teenager named Fullerton arrives at the refuge and disrupts its routines. Awkward, fragile, and driven to creating work he barely understands, the boy is plagued by a recurring nightmare that steers him into danger, and Knell is left to pick apart the chilling mystery. Where did he come from, what is ‘The Ecliptic’, and how does it relate to their abandoned lives in England? The pursuit of answers forces Knell to question the sanctuary of Portmantle, until all its freedoms begin to seem the opposite, and she’s compelled to find a means of escape.
Read if you loved: Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
Benjamin Wood Biography
‘Wood is the real deal . . . An author of great depth and resource’ Guardian
Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in north-west England. A former Commonwealth Scholar, he is now a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. His debut The Bellwether Revivals was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize, and was awarded France’s Prix du Roman Fnac.
In 2013, he served as the British Council’s Writer in Residence in Istanbul, where he began writing his highly acclaimed second novel The Ecliptic. He lives near London with his wife and son.
Benjamin Wood on the Inspiration Behind The Ecliptic
The Ecliptic began with a fascination for the basis of creativity and the circumstances in which it fails or thrives. I’ve always wondered what truly great creative work is built from—preternatural ability or instinct, trauma or experience, from measured study or from something visceral, raw and expressive; or is it from a confluence of all these things at once?
I’ve long been inspired by the singer, Jeff Buckley, and the period towards the end of his life when he fled from his success as a recording artist in New York. He rented a rundown house in Memphis, washing dishes in a local restaurant, while he spent time writing songs he thought were true and authentic, hiding away from his record company. In some sense, The Ecliptic has a foundation in this story. I wanted to understand what artistic integrity really means, if it’s something that can ever be achieved or if it’s just what the narrator, Elspeth, calls “a phantom ideal”.
Much of the book was inspired by walks I took around the island of Heybeliada in 2013, which I visited as part of a residency in Istanbul for the British Council. Wandering around a sparsely populated island in the height of winter summoned all kinds of creative possibilities in my mind: scope for narrative, ideas for characters. At the time, I’d been reading a lot about David Foster Wallace’s experiences at the Yaddo colony in the USA, and I was interested in seeing how far I could extend the conventions of a typical artists’ colony for dramatic effects.
A lot of what I do, in the early stages of writing a novel, is purposeful speculation: what if there were a place that artists could go to escape the pressures of success and work without distraction? What if they had to go there in secret? How might a place like this function? What effect might it have on the artist’s psyche? With The Ecliptic, this speculative process resulted in the creation of Portmantle, a refuge for artists with a strange governing system and traditions, into which Elspeth is embedded. The life she has on the island is underpinned by the life she’s left behind, and the reconciliation of the two is what the reader is invited to explore.
Benjamin Wood, December 2015