Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind
Charnock’s novel tells three parallel stories, one set in the past, one in the present, and one in the future. In 15th-century Florence, Antonia, daughter of the painter Paolo Uccello, learns to paint from her father, but, as a woman of the Renaissance, her choices are limited to marriage or a convent. Without consulting her, her father has chosen to send her to a convent, because there she will be allowed to continue painting. If she married, the duties of a wife and mother would keep her from her art. In 2015, a copyist painter and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Toni, travel to China, where a businessman asks him to copy a painting by Paolo Uccello. Toni’s mother has recently died in an accident, and she and her father try to put their lives back together. In 2113, Toniah, an art historian who lives in an all-female household, wants to prove that a recently-discovered Renaissance painting is the work of Antonia Uccello.
This novel is beautifully written, and each of the stories is compelling in itself, even though I found the Renaissance story the strongest of the three. Charnock’s future doesn’t seem that different from the present, except for reproductive technology that allows a baby to be conceived without a father. I kept wondering how the stories would be interconnected, but the only connections are the names of the three protagonists, the art of Antonia Uccello and her father, and the theme of family relationships. I was hoping for a closer connection among the three stories. Also, the novel ends abruptly, and the present-day story is the only one with a real resolution. But in spite of these problems, Charnock makes you care about her characters, and her writing makes you want to keep turning the pages.