My favourite genre at the moment is fictional re-imaginings of the lives of historical figures – the centre of the Venn diagram between truth and fabrication. Smyth’s novel suits my current mood beautifully. This is a fictionalisation of a few years in the life of Jo Hiffernan: artist and model. She modelled for Whistler’s The White Girl (left), Courbet’s La Belle Irlandaise, and, probably, his sensational L’Origine du Monde. Hold Still largely focuses on her time with James Whistler, spent between London and France in the 1860s; the fluctuations of their passionate relationship form the main drama of this novel. I felt sad for Jo at times, as her ambition is subsumed by her caring roles for her mother and then Whistler, but there are brighter scenes too and an uplifting conclusion. It is almost allegorical in its exposition of a woman defined by male gaze, yet striving for autonomy.
I adored the bohemian supporting cast and would have enjoyed more time in Rossetti’s back garden menagerie, where Jo ‘forms an attachment to a baby kangaroo’. Also, Whistler’s intolerable mother was a true highlight, ‘”Oh my dear, I do hope you have not been take in by that nincompoop Darwin.”‘
Smyth is a meticulous writer and clearly chose each word precisely. Her debut novel is replete with colour, texture, depth, sunsets and heartbreak (professional and personal). Smyth brings Jo Hiffernan to life in a sensitive and skilful portrait.
Thank you very much to Holland Park Press for the review copy.