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Keeping the World Away    by Margaret Forster order for
Keeping the World Away
by Margaret Forster
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

In the Prologue to Keeping the World Away, a young student, Gillian, is on a field trip to the Tate Museum in London. She begins looking at the paintings and thinking that her teacher's notes are irrelevant. 'Did she need to know where the artist was born, or trained? ... If a painting didn't speak for itself, what use was it?' But as she becomes fascinated by one particular painting, she begins 'wondering where it had been, who had owned it, who had looked at it. And other things ... what effect did it have on the people who have looked at it?' So this is the story of one particular painting, about its artist and how it came to be, about what happened to it and to the women who were touched by it.

Interestingly enough, the painting is an actual one, created by Gwen John, a small, intimate view of a quiet corner of her attic room. In the novel, the painting is gifted, lost, found, stolen, sold and fought over.

Margaret Forster has set herself a difficult enough task in describing how oils are actually applied to create a painting, the type of brush that must be used to get a certain effect. On top of that we are given a view of what the artist is thinking and feeling as she is creating, what her reaction is upon completing the work, all in relation to what is happening in her life. Similarly, as the painting passes to its various owners, we learn the effect it has on them, and how what is happening in each of their lives has a bearing on how they view it. In every instance, the painting makes a deep impression, something others who do not share the women's view have a hard time understanding. To them it is a trifle, a bare-bones depiction of a small area of a room. But to Gillian, for example, the painting 'only looks empty ... It has a presence, someone serene and contented and maybe in love.'

This seemingly simple object becomes an important part of the lives of the women who gaze at it, providing them with insight into their own creativity and a richness beyond the more usual considerations of whether it is an original Gwen John and what monetary value it might have. In her discerning look at the female artist and the feminine perspective, author Forster has penned an unusual but rewarding work for us.

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