Published in 2006, Keeping the World Away is a fictionalised account of a real painting and the women whose lives it touches. The novel opens with the story of the painter herself, early 20th century artist, Gwen John. The painting, of a corner of her attic room in Paris, then passes from creative woman to creative woman through the 20th century up to the present day. The lives of these women are very different, but they all share a desire to find a place of their own that reflects the tranquility of the space they see in the painting.
Before reading this book I confess that I hadn’t heard of Gwen John, but I think this lack of prior knowledge probably enhanced my reading experience because I had no pre-conceived ideas about what her life would be like, and I enjoyed learning about the artist and her painting as the book progressed.
I think the reason that this book caught my eye in the library was the title: as a self-confessed introvert I feel the need at regular intervals to keep the world away and retreat into my own head and my own physical space. For this reason the book, and some of the characters in particular, really resonated with me. My husband and I currently live with his parents, and they kindly let me commandeer the rarely used attic space to use as my creative space. I spend part of most days up here, surrounded by art and craft supplies; books; photos and quotations on the walls. Up here I can focus, and be creative purely for creativity’s sake. If anyone wished to know the ‘real me’, I would just show them this room and say “This. This is me” One of the quotes that stood out in the book:
“Quickly, she finished the floor and closed the door on the newly clean and tidy hut. Leaving it, she always felt reluctant, whether she had been working well or not. It was her place…..Strange, she thought, how a room, and in this case just a makeshift room, could take on an atmosphere. There was little in it that was purely personal except for her paintings, no belongings or furnishings that reflected her own personality, and yet the hut felt like hers. It was her.”
This was the first Margaret Forster novel I have read, and I certainly enjoyed reading it enough to want to seek out her other books. Being partly based on historical fact gave the book an extra interest, and the fictional lives of the characters were believable and moving and will stay with me for some time. I am also keen to find out more about Gwen John and her art, and think a print of ‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ would fit well in my own creative attic space.
The Literary Owl rating: 7.5/10
Read with: a glass of French red wine, in a space of your own.