on 19 September 2000
THE STILLEST DAY, rich in ambiguity, is unlike anything I've read before, and I'll be wondering about it for a long time to come. Bethesda Barnet, age 30, is an artist living in a quiet turn-of-the-century village. She tends her invalid mother, with whom she shares a home, and teaches art in the village school, an unchallenging job. This tedium is lightened somewhat by visits to Lord Grantleigh, the local nobleman, who appreciates her talent, and the drawn-out courtship of a pleasant if unexciting man. And, of course, there is always her painting. She declares herself content with her dull life, but early on I sensed that a woman of her intelligence and imagination craved greater stimulation. It comes in the face, quite literally, of Mathew Pearson, who moves into the house next door with his pregnant wife. From the moment she sees him, Bethesda is transfixed. Though Mathew displays no interest in her beyond basic courtesy, she becomes eerily obsessed by him, painting his face on her mirror so his image will merge with hers, and having secret "conversations" with him in the privacy of her bedroom. On "the stillest day," when time seems to halt, Bethesda does something which may well be heroic, but is in the eyes of the villagers dangerous and unacceptable, meddling with God's ways. Henceforth Bethesda's life will spiral into tragedy.
The sheer reading of this was a pleasure, because Hart is a gifted writer. Her lyrical style beguiled me, and her intimations of cataclysmic events to come kept me fascinated. The book is written in first person, narrated by Bethesda, and I like the way everything is filtered through her painterly vision. Also of interest is the way her artwork reflects her state of mind. At the novel's opening she does basic representational works of the village school and church, but by the novel's close she is executing strange abstracts of contorted women.
This is a difficult novel to categorize because it incorporates several genres: Gothic, feminist, macabre, artistic. This is definitely not on of those books which will "make you laugh, make you cry." It is cerebral and will provoke a lot of thought rather than emotion.
While I read the first half of this book with great interest and eagerness, I found the events of the second half, which followed "the stillest day," disturbing, mysterious, and somewhat confusing. A lot of questions are raised but few are answered, so expect no neat resolutions! I'm still wondering if Bethesda's relationship with Mathew is wholly imagined, or if some aspects of it are real.
I've asked myself what the author might be trying to communicate, and three themes surface. First, she shows us how stifling Bethesda's time and place are for a woman of her gifts. Another theme is the dark and destructive nature of romantic obsession. Finally, I think she explores whether there is a fine line between the "artistic temperament" and madness. I recommend THE STILLEST DAY, despite some of the drawbacks of the second half,because it provides a unique reading experience.