Art on Fire – Hilary Sloin (Bywater Books)

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By it now direct from Bywater Books

I know nothing about art criticism except that it appears
almost as pretentious as literary criticism. Moreover, I know nothing (formalistically, anyway) about art except how an individual piece makes me feel. That did not, however, alter my thorough and utter enjoyment of Hilary Sloin’s Art on Fire, an incredible faux biography of the fictional Francesca deSilva.

Francesca deSilva is a subversive lesbian artist whose life
was shaped by her restrained childhood under her parents, Alphonse and Vivian, who considered Francesca’s sister Isabella to be the genius of the family.
Chapters about her home life, including an incident where she’s discovered in bed with Lisa Sinsong, a chess master, her flight to Cape Cod and her rise to fame as a painter are interspersed with detailed descriptions and analyses of her thirteen extant paintings.

Far from dull, these essays are hilarious, pointed mini-satires on art criticism (complete with fake footnotes) that illuminate the chapters of deSilva’s life at the same time they bring her fictional body of work to life. Sloin clearly sees these paintings in her head, and her ability to convey that to the reader is astounding.

But mini-satires, as wonderful as they are, does not a novel make. You need characters and plot and tension to drive the reader through the pages. And Art on Fire has these things in spades. Francesca is marvelously detailed, as resentful of her sudden fame as she is dependent on it—the very epitome of genius, creating work worth thousands of dollars yet living in a cabin with no toilet or running water. Complicated and tortured by
longing for the one love she cannot have, her ache haunts her art.

But even more interesting than Francesca—if that’s possible—is her sister Isabella, a doomed alcoholic writer whose early bloom of literary genius was the only fruition of her talent. Her suicide attempts seem as natural as her odd obsession with Anne Frank. Francesca has the talent Isabella seeks as well as the courage she needs and, strangely enough, Francesca seems to have derived that strength from being overlooked by her parents in favor of her sister.

In addition to the sisters, Sloin draws some detailed portraits of two other characters worth mentioning: the aforementioned Lisa Sinsong and Francesca’s paternal grandmother Evelyn. Lisa is Francesca’s first and only love, a brilliant Asian American chess master with an overbearing father and a mother who committed suicide. Evelyn is a brilliantly constructed character who we see falling apart from Alzheimer’s. Both of these women influence Francesca’s work as well as her life.

But a description of the book really can’t do it justice. Let this one seep into your mind and work its magic on you. It’s the superb craftsmanship of a master storyteller at work.

©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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