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Keeping the World Away


Keeping the World Away

Bestselling memoirist, biographer and historical novelist
Margaret Forster hasn’t published anything in the U.S. (she
lives in London) in quite some time. KEEPING THE WORLD AWAY is her
first work for an American audience in 15 years --- and you wonder
why. Although her writing can sometimes seem slow or unnecessarily
drawn out, it is only because Forster has taken the time to
construct a quietly resonant story --- one that allows for a
stroll, a silent meditation, a well-needed nap between chapters.
This isn’t the type of book you can sit down and digest in
one sitting, but one that requires thinking beyond what is written
in its pages in order to grasp its multi-layered meaning.

In the prologue, a young girl named Gillian (the same Gillian,
readers will notice, who is the subject of the book’s final
section, although at an older age) is on a field trip to the Tate
Gallery with her class. After looking at the paintings and being
captivated by their presence, she finds herself wondering about the
lives of the paintings themselves. “I was wondering where it
had been, who had owned it, who had looked at it,” she says.
“I mean, what effect did it have on the people who have
looked at it? What has it meant to them, how have they looked at
it, did they feel the same as I did, did they see what I
saw…?” These are the questions that shape the remainder
of the novel.

Although KEEPING THE WORLD AWAY takes a while to dive into, readers
will soon get the hang of the plot’s formula, and with each
subsequent chapter, the book’s intentions will unfold on an
increasingly deeper level. The first section focuses on Gwen John,
a lonely, often destitute painter (both in the story and in real
life) and the sister of the more famous artist, Augustus John. In
these chapters, Forster paints a vivid portrait of Gwen’s
reclusive character, her passion for painting and her illicit
affair with the sculptor Rodin. Forster also vaguely describes
Gwen’s thoughts and feelings during the time she created the
painting of her room, although she takes great care in not spelling
anything out for her readers so that they can form their own
conclusions. It’s this painting that then becomes the subject
of the following five sections, named after each of the women who
comes into contact with the painting: Charlotte, Stella, Lucasta,
Ailsa and Gillian.

As the painting is passed on from woman to woman, and from
generation to generation, it affects each lady (and the people she
loves or is involved with) in both similar and disparate ways. For
many of the characters, the simple but expressive painting
represents a longing for something different, a door to another
life. For both Charlotte and Stella, the painting initially made
them want the life of an artist, one that would enable them to
squire away their worries in favor of putting paint on a canvas.
For Ailsa, the painting initially represented everything she had
given up for her marriage --- a marriage that suffered through much
unhappiness and many affairs before her husband’s death. No
matter what the circumstances are, readers will relish in learning
each woman’s thoughts on where the painting came from, who
painted it and what it was supposed to “mean.” These
observations offer great insight into each of the character’s
personalities, her hopes and her dreams.

By anchoring the story around an inanimate yet incredibly powerful
object, Forster raises timeless questions about the nature of art.
What makes art art? Why are the lives of starving artists who are
most often poor, depressed and discontent seen as glamorous and
therefore paths that should be envied? What makes a work of art
meaningful? Does meaning stem from the artist’s intention or
what the beholder takes away from it? Can an artist live a
well-balanced life (practice monogamy, raise a family, have other
interests) or must he/she devote his/her complete self to his/her
art? While each of the characters attempts to answer these
questions, they stumble often, proving that there is no right or
wrong answer, which is what makes art --- and its creation --- so
alluring and the book a worthwhile read.

After finishing KEEPING THE WORLD AWAY, readers may not feel bowled
over…but that’s not the type of book this is. Instead,
many will probably feel grateful for the opportunity to take a
break from the day-to-day to ponder the mysteries of art and to
read a story about an actual painting --- and how it changed the
lives of its owners --- that is still hanging in the city of
Sheffield’s art gallery to this day.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 22, 2011

Keeping the World Away
by Margaret Forster

  • Publication Date: July 3, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345496337
  • ISBN-13: 9780345496331