Book Review: Women in the field, one and two, by Thomasin Sleigh

Available at selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_women_in_the_field_one_and_twoWomen in the Field, One and Two, written by Thomasin Sleigh, felt like season one of a TV show. Each chapter held a problem to be overcome that all contributed to the main arc of the novel. I wanted more as soon as I shut the book.

The main character, Ruth, is engaging and relatable. She works as assistant keeper at the Fisher Gallery in London 70 years ago, where she is tasked with recommending acquisitions for New Zealand’s National Art Gallery. We follow Ruth’s trials with her co-workers at the gallery, excursions with her family, and interactions through the window with her neighbour across the street. At an exhibition one evening, Ruth is introduced to Irina Durova, a fictional Russian artist who is determined to show Ruth her work. After obliging Irina not once, but twice, by visiting her disorganised studio, Ruth recommends Irina’s ‘modern art’ to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand and sets in motion a chain of events leading up to her and Irina travelling with the exhibition all the way to Wellington.

The book begins weakly, with a somewhat stilted first chapter. It feels like a summary of events that brings us to the story, rather than immersing us in that story immediately. But once we are there, it is extremely compelling.

The novel has a unique perspective. The art world is intriguing, especially in that time. The clash of Ruth, a passionate and straightforward introvert, and Irina, a determined and excessively confident artist, is fascinating to watch unfold. What makes it even more appealing is the genuine sense of place that we receive of both London and Wellington. Images like ‘the weather was changeable, restless. A strong wind shunted clouds across the sky’ are so familiar that it feels like you are in Wellington in the 1950s having a cup of tea with Ruth.

The book deals with themes such as misogyny in the workplace and trying to settle in to your own place in the world, that are unfortunately still relevant today. Ruth constantly struggles to be able to fit in at work: ‘She wanted to scream, horrendously, viciously. Did these men only allow her to speak so they could pretend to listen to her, nodding patronisingly while her words, like flimsy paper darts, glanced off their impenetrable foreheads?’ Once in New Zealand, Ruth and Irina fight against the extreme colonialism and conservatism of the public, so different to the Wellington of today.

A small bonus was being able to identify exactly where in the book the cover design had originated!

The book’s editorial production feels rushed, and there are some proofreading errors. However, the story is engaging enough to be able to continue reading.

Women in the Field, One and Two has a strong story arc, relatable and likeable characters, and an interesting divide in setting between London and New Zealand. It is one of the most fascinating books by a New Zealand author that I have read.

Reviewed by Francesca Edwards

Women in the field, One and Two
by Thomasin Sleigh
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473442095