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Art on Fire - Hilary Sloin

What if we are not aiming to reach our potential but rather escape it, and therefore, accidentally, we find our truth?

Art on Fire is a fictional biography of subversive painter Francesca deSilva, the founding foremother of "pseudorealism," who lived hard and died young. But in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov's acclaimed novel Pale Fire, Art of Fire is fiction from start to finish. It opens with Francesca's early life. We learn about chess genius Lisa Sinsong—her childhood love—and Francesca’s rivalry with her brilliant sister Isabella, who publishes an acclaimed volume of poetry at the age of twelve. Francesca compensates for the failings of her less than attentive parents by turning to her grandmother who is loyal and adoring until she rejects Francesca when she learns that Francesca is a lesbian.

Francesca flees to a ramshackle cabin in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, working weekends at the flea market. She breaks into the gloomy basement of a vacant house where she begins her life as a painter. Much to her confusion, and even dismay, fame comes quickly. Interspersed with the narrative of Francesca's life are thirteen "essays" written by critics, academics, and psychologists about the paintings of Francesca deSilva—essays that are razor-sharp satires about art, lesbian life, and the academic world. They puncture pretentiousness with every paragraph.

The blurb states that the story is darkly comic, and while there are intensely sharp and pointed observations that poke fun at the art world, the heartache in the story affected me deeply. I cried at the poignancy and unbearable sadness in so many of the events. Because I went into this book without reading the blurb, so I fully believed it to be the biography of a real artist who lived and loved and sought legitimacy. I even Googled Francesca afterwards, only to discover that she didn’t exist at all. I was bereft because I desperately wanted Francesca to live. I clung to the final footnote because it delivers a possibility of hope.

Bipolar disorder and depression permeate the novel. I didn’t know this going in. Sloin has either personal experience with, or has so thoroughly researched the intricacies of, bipolar disorder and depression that my little mental illness heart gasped at the exactitude of the prose surrounding this topic. (Edit: I now know more about Hilary Sloin and urge you to research this author’s personal demons.)

And it is an exactitude. In the beginning, the writing is ethereal, an offering for Isabella, Francesca’s gifted yet mentally ill sister. Then the writing builds a strength that forms Francesca’s foundation; the layers as she becomes who she thinks she could be. She orbits her own short life like a slightly off-kilter planet. The people important to her drift into her space, until they leave, quietly or dramatically, which tears at Francesca’s heart.

People such as Isabella. Their relationship is fraught, pulled and stretched with elastic-like necessity. People such as Lisa Sinsong who is Francesca’s only love; their chemistry tested by family expectations and the weight of legacy. There is a heartbreaking moment when the weight becomes too much to bear.

Art on Fire is a fearless satire on the art, the genre, of biography. The art is not only Francesca’s paintings. It is Francesca herself. She is the art that is aflame; igniting her passion to escape the mundane. To read Art on Fire is to yearn for someone’s life to unfold, to wish them a path of fulfilment. It is an astonishing novel.


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