The Tower by Marguerite Steen

In The Tower, Marguerite Steen provides the contemporary reader with her valuable insights into the world of the struggling if moderately successful artist of 1950s Britain, a time of post-war transition in society and the art world, as abstractionism grew in ascendancy.

“Painter Tom Proctor and his wife Antonia are among innumerable victims of the so-called Welfare State, their problem complicated by their child, Noelle, who is in desperate need of care. Tom’s career has arrived at an impasse, in which his sole support is the steadfast belief of Antonia in the value and honesty of his work.

Torn between duty to wife and child and artistic integrity, Tom is about to play for safety by accepting a salaried job in an art school. In The Tower, Marguerite Steen delicately explores domestic tension and the strength that comes from a loving relationship against an artistic backdrop she knows so well.”

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In The Tower Marguerite Steen demonstrates considerable literary prowess, painting in words a character riven by situations and conditions beyond his control. Tom Proctor is enduring a form of mid-life crisis. With mounting debts and a wife and child to support, he is torn between satisfying convention and taking risks. He’s broody, wary, given to intense moods, staunch when he can’t afford to be, and prone to bouts of drunken recklessness. His angst centres on finding ways to earn a living from his art in a changing world. He hankers after a past, his own in those early years before the birth of a severely disabled daughter, Noelle, and for a time in the art world when primitivism was valued over abstraction.

The reader senses early in the narrative that Tom’s explanations and justifications for his various decisions take the form of an elaborate excuse for something disastrous. He is confronted with a decision, a fork in the road, two futures presenting themselves, one of security and stability, the other its opposite. What ensues has the flavour of a descent into desperation without redemption.

In Tom Proctor, Steen balances ruthless honesty and self scrutiny with equally acute observations of other characters, particularly the pretentious upper classes in the art and theatre milieu. Proctor’s observant eye is that of a painter regarding his subject and the result is a novel filled with evocative depictions of setting and character.

The Tower is not a work of perfection. Some of the transitions between scenes could have been more deftly handled. At times the narrative feels hurried, some plot points skated over rather than dwelt on, yet if they had been explored in more detail, the narrator pausing, attending, then The Tower would be a different book, and not what it is, a masterful portrayal of one man’s account of his motivations, apprehensions and misgivings in the face of an art scene filled with dilettantes, and a post-war society in transition. Steen provides an intimate tale of an artist battling with authenticity versus compromise, with his conscience, with his own artistic temperament and with his domestic responsibilities.

The re-release of this novel will satisfy a new wave of readers hankering after works composed in a richer style of prose, those who seek not only an entertaining read, but a work that stimulates the imagination and ignites the intellect.

I’d like to thank NetGalley and Odyssey Press for my review copy.
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