An Equal Stillness, By Francesca Kay

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"Life or art?" The question arises on the second page of this sensual debut novel, but is woven throughout the rich narrative in many complex ways. It is a harsh choice for Jennet Mallow, a fictional famed artist born in 1924. Her life is narrated by her biographer: how, as a little girl, Mallow would draw on her bedroom wall in secret; how those early sketches haunt her in adulthood; how she meets her husband in the "life room" at Kensington School of Art and the ways marriage might be death; how she had not dared to think of art as a way of living, but how it is the only way for her. There are more technical questions: do we need to understand the life of an artist to appreciate their work?

There is something thrilling about watching an artist gaze longingly at another form: similarly to Vikram Seth's use of music in An Equal Music, this, too, is a wistful love letter to a cousin art form which sheds light on the distinctive powers of each. Above all, Francesca Kay knows – and shows – how good art takes on a life all of its own.