Book Review – Keeping the world away

‘Keeping the world away’ follows the life of a painting from creation through the hands of various owners – all women. The painting Margaret Forster has selected as the basis for the book is a real one – a simple sunlight interior – painted by Gwyn John, the sister of the painter Augustus John – but the subsequent history of the painting is fictional.

This leads to an interesting divergence in the writing. The first section devoted to Gwyn John is clearly meticulously researched and we get a picture of her early life, and experience of art school followed by a move to Paris where she becomes the lover of the sculptor Rodin. This is fascinating but at the same time the writing doesn’t seem to flow as easily as in the later completely fictional passages. It felt as though some details and anecdotes were included even though they didn’t add to the main flow of the book.

The painting subsequently belongs to various women – lost, stolen, given  – and each develops a special bond or affection for the work. What comes over is the importance of art, but also the need to be able to devote yourself completely to it – the need to be passionate and single minded about your work in order to be successful. Some of the women have that drive – others find it is lacking. The book also captures the restrictions placed on women’s ambitions by the structure and expectations of society and rol

It was an interesting but ultimately not quite satisfying read.

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