Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hold Still by Cherry Smyth

5 Star

How did a young girl, just seventeen when she met Jim Whistler, admittedly with beautiful red hair, and a vivid personality, inspire talented painters to create wonderful paintings such as: Whistler’s Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl and Courbet’s La Belle Irlandaise?

Hold Still tells the story from Jo’s point of view. Her father instils in her a sense of self and Jo grows up to be a free spirit, a suffragette avant la lettre. Jo draws you in on her journey and her growing sense of her own artistic identity.

Rebecca - 5 Star

I know as much about art history as your average Brit knows about hockey - the fact that shortly after my arrival in Canada I had to ask at a neighbour's barbeque if by ‘hockey’ she meant ‘ice-hockey’, (I was told in no uncertain terms I could drop the ‘ice’), should tell you is almost nothing. The funky yet somewhat minimalist cover of Hold Still also doesn’t give much away so opening this book felt like a bit of a leap into the unknown and I was worried I might be out of my depth. I needn't have worried though as this sumptuous book enveloped me into the Paris and London 1860s art scene without feeling like a weighty exposition on the subject.

Jo is one of the more intriguing heroines I've read about in the past year and the fact that she really existed makes this all the more wonderful. In truth relatively little is known about her, in particular it seems that almost nothing is known about what happened to her after this period in her life but in the pages of Hold Still she lives and breathes in vivid colours. I was particularly drawn by the concept that Jo lived as Whistler’s mistress and not his wife in a prudish era and the far-reaching consequences this must have had for her; Jo’s own personal artistic ambitions certainly are lost in the debris.

The novel culminates in Jo posing for Courbet’s Origin of the World which is a sexually charged and provocative work (go on Google it, but not with youngsters around!) and there are several intensely raunchy passages in the book, but Smyth handles these beautifully. Often I find reading so-called erotic passages slightly embarrassing (a bit like watching a film with your parents that is more art-house than you intended), but this was something else. With tangles of love, art, jealousy and sex, Hold Still has it all and I can’t recommend it more.

Thank you to Holland Park Press for our review copy. All opinions are our own.

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