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“…I had created my dream lover: a cowboy in girl’s clothing, the one who cannot be possessed, who oozes with the need to express herself but cannot.”
So Hilary Sloin describes the heroine of her novel, Art on Fire (Bywater Books), in an October 6, 2012 interview with The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites. Sloin goes on to say that in writing, she is “keeping the meaningless away” and that she falls in love with what she is working on, “whether it be the story, the place, or the characters…” That love of storytelling is evident in her masterful debut novel.
Art on Fire is framed as a biography of Francesca deSilva, a reluctantly revolutionary artist. DeSilva is a character of Sloin’s own making, but under the author’s deft craftsmanship she is an uncannily realized creation. The youngest daughter of emotionally-limited parents, and younger sister to Isabella—a coddled and brilliant but mentally disturbed young poet—Francesca navigates her way through a family that would rather forget about than acknowledge her.
Matriarch Vivian is obsessed with Isabella’s success and largely ignores her younger daughter; Vivian convinces herself that she is simply giving Francesca her freedom. Patriarch Alfonso is a well-intentioned but thoroughly out-of-his element dad who seems perplexed by the female beings in his life. He wants to love his daughters, and perhaps he even does, but his capacity to do so is stilted. Francesca seeks solace from her grandmother, who eventually abandons her when she learns Francesca is a lesbian. And so, Francesca escapes into her art…“at least she had her paintings with her: armor.”
Francesca meets her first love in an attempt to seek revenge on her sister, whom she has always had a troubled relationship with. She “steals” Isabella’s only friend, Lisa SinSong, another gifted child. Francesca charms Lisa, and eventually seduces her, away from Isabella. Though the relationship ends, Francesca carries her love for Lisa with her throughout her life, always comparing other lovers to her:
Shanta was so beautiful and she smelled of all sorts of interesting, expensive scents…but it was painting, not sex, that Francesca craved. And all the painting she did, combined with the large continent of her heart occupied by Lisa, did not leave much left over.
The book opens with a fire destroying the entire deSilva family. The reader learns immediately that most of Francesca’s work has been destroyed. The pieces that were salvaged serve as backdrops for the critical essays that Sloin inserts between chapters, complete with source references and footnotes. The essays are so convincing that I found myself googling the citations. In one essay, Sloin quotes critic Paul deVaine comparing Francesca’s “definitive work,” Cigarette Burns, to “the aura felt by migraine sufferers just before the onset of a brutal headache.” Sloin had me fooled.
Art on Fire is a commentary on life, love, the search for meaning, and the subjective nature of truth. Reading those essays reminds me of the way we are taught to dissect literature in academia—how if we really know what the author means, the process of dissection can seem disingenuous. And so Sloin pokes fun at the pomposity of the critic – consider the name, deVaine – and the nature of criticism itself.
Sloin is a novelist, essayist and playwright. Art on Fire was a finalist for several awards, and mistakenly won the non-fiction prize in the Amherst Book and Plow Competition (I wasn’t the only one fooled, it seems).
In the Queerest Place interview, Sloin stated, “I was able to write Art on Fire because it held my attention. It made me laugh and cry as I was writing it…Like all things that come from the heart, it is a flawed product, but it breathes and pulsates…” I beg to differ, Ms. Sloin. I fail to see the flaws. Art on Fire is alive with passion, humor, and real truth. Sloin created her dream lover in Francesca. I fell in love with the “cowboy in girl’s clothing” too.
Art on Fire
By Hilary Sloin
Paperback, 9781612940311, 336 pp.