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Before I read Autumn with my lovely, very small book group, I had thought that Ali Smith wasn’t for me. I thoroughly enjoyed Autumn, certainly I enjoyed it enough to buy the next book in her Seasonal Quartet while it was still in hardback. Winter is set at Christmas, so it seemed Christmas should be the perfect time to read it – it is – I gulped it down finishing it on Christmas Eve. I absolutely loved it, much more than I did Autumn, and so much that it has very nearly knocked something else off my books of the year list, it still might, to be honest – I’m very much at the editing stage (that list should be coming out tomorrow – sorry everything is getting shoved out far too close together at the moment).

Autumn began with a nod to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Winter begins with a nod to A Christmas Carol with the words

“God was dead to begin with.”

Then for two and a half pages Ali Smith treats us to a jaw dropping list of things which, in this modern world of ours, are also dead. They include: romance, democracy, the book, jazz, modernism, postmodernism, truth and fiction. Ending…

“but in any case forget ghosts, put them out of your mind because this isn’t a ghost story, though it’s the dead of winter when it happens, a bright sunny post-millennial global-warming Christmas Eve morning (Christmas, too dead), and it’s about real things really happening in the real world involving real people in real time on the real earth (uh huh, earth also dead):”

I love the way Ali smith plays around with ideas, language and the rhythm of language.

The story concerns Sophia, Art, and Iris, and the young displaced European Lux. The setting is London and Cornwall, at Christmas, and there is no doubting what year we are in. Ali Smith’s writing is extraordinarily current, throughout the novel she references Brexit, Trump and Grenfell. This is a novel which we could bury in a time capsule for future generations – it is a novel for our times, written in Smith’s own inimitable way. Every word is brilliant.

Sophia; once a very successful businesswoman, is living in a huge house in Cornwall, she is currently ‘seeing’ a small disembodied head everywhere she goes. Having been assured her vision is fine, she has now started speaking to the head.

“and this is the first time she’s spoken to it – the abrasion, degeneration, detachment, floater, which at this point is still fairly small, you can’t yet make out it’s a head, small as a fly floating about in front of her, a tiny sputnik, and when she speaks directly to it like that it’s as if it’s a ball hit by the steel lever at the side of a pinball machine and it ricochets from one side of the car to the other.
Its movement, at near four o clock in the winter dark on the shortest day of the year, is joyful.”

Sophia doesn’t embrace change, she’s getting on, but stubborn, set in her ways – she also isn’t one to ask for help. Art is Sophia’s son, he lives in London, he has a peculiar internet job, but his real love is writing about nature online. Art has lots of followers on Twitter and a girlfriend called Charlotte. Only he and Charlotte appear to have split up, and now she has logged into his Twitter account and started posting inaccurate nonsense. Having persuaded his mother to invite Charlotte for Christmas, Art doesn’t want to admit they have separated – so meeting a young, woman at a bus stop in need of a break, he offers to pay her £1000 to pretend to be Charlotte. Lux, agrees and accompanies Art to Cornwall. Lux is a European migrant, she is also enormously intelligent and hugely resourceful. Arriving in Cornwall Art and Lux discover Sophia in a rather worrying condition with virtually no food in the house. Lux takes charge. Discovering from Art that Sophia has a sister, Iris – who Sophia hasn’t spoken to in years, Lux decides to call her. Iris soon turns up with a car full of supplies.

Just as this novel is very much rooted in the present it also recognises how the present is inextricably linked to the past, and of course the future, Smith plays around a little with time flash backwards and forwards. In the stories of Sophia and her sister Iris, the past, especially is never too far away. Smith’s playfulness with language is very much in evidence too, in Autumn art was a big theme – we were introduced to the British pop artist Paulin Boty. In Winter, we have a character Art, who writes a blog Art in Nature. The art of Barbara Hepworth is referenced too – and in the hands of Ali Smith everything feels beautifully connected.

Iris is entirely different to Sophia – yet they share a past – as we gradually come to see in flashback. Iris was always a rebel – a serious activist – one of the first women to set up camp at Greenham common, she is currently campaigning for Greek refugees. Iris is internet savvy in a way that her sister isn’t, has adapted herself to the changing world. In flashback we see the divisions that erupted between the sisters, the secrets at the heart of their lives. Here, we can find (it is rather hidden) the gossamer thin thread which connects Winter to the previous novel Autumn. So clever!

In the end it is the outsider – Lux who helps to heal the wounds that these two ageing sisters carry. We are left with a tantalising glimpse of what spring might offer this fractured family. As a reader, I am already anticipating the next instalment of this novel sequence.

I feel as if I could talk about this book a lot more, but I won’t – the best way to discover how brilliant it is, is of course to read it, and I urge you all to do just that.

 

Ali Smith

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mde

So many people seem to love Ali Smith’s work, I have over the years seem numerous glowing reviews of her novels. I had often thought that perhaps I had missed something with Ali Smith – and should probably put that right – the moment never seemed to arrive, and then my very small book group picked Autumn as our November read. We meet to discuss it tomorrow evening – and I am sure we will have an interesting discussion. I tried to read The Accidental, some years ago, I didn’t get along with the style at all, although that isn’t usually enough to make me set a book aside – I didn’t finish The Accidental, although I can’t remember if there was anything else that made me not like it. I was a bit nervous therefore approaching this novel, for years I have had the idea that Ali Smith wasn’t for me. The good news is that I liked Autumn very much, parts of it I almost loved, but I certainly liked it enough I think, to try others of her books in the future.

There are some beautiful passages, sections I enjoyed reading over again, even parts that made me laugh. This section, I found particularly beautiful.

“November again. It’s more winter than autumn. That’s not mist. It’s fog. The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass. There’ve been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring. The furniture in the garden is rusting. They’ve forgotten to put it away for the winter. The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still. Look at the colour of it.”

Autumn is the first book in a projected seasonal sequence of novels, Winter has been published, already creating quite a buzz.

In Autumn we have the story of a unique friendship, set against the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Elisabeth Demand is a thirty-two-year-old art historian, dismayed by what she sees happening around her in the wake of that vote, she turns to her friendship with Daniel Gluck and the memory of all he taught her growing up to try and make sense of it. Daniel is a hundred and one, lying in a coma like sleep, the staff at the care home don’t think he’ll last long now. His mind is still alive, and in between parts of the non-linear narrative, are some of Daniel’s dreams, confusing though they can be, he dreams of being young again.

There is a beautiful rhythm to parts of Smith’s narrative – which I really liked, I particularly liked three pages ruminating on the Brexit vote, which almost amount to a poem.

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish Passport Applications.”

As a child, Elisabeth and her single mother had lived next door to Daniel. When Elisabeth was asked by her teacher to write something about her neighbour, she chose to write about Daniel. After a bit of a false start and despite her mother’s unhelpful advice to just make it up, bit by bit a friendship was born. Elisabeth’s mother became quite happy to use Daniel for babysitting when it suited her, yet she was also rather quick to make assumptions about a man she barely knew then. Elisabeth’s mother is frequently absent – she appears uncaring, though there is also an anger in her that many might recognise.

“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

For several years, until Elisabeth is a teenager – she and Daniel take walks together – an elderly man, and a little girl, but the two have made a connection – and that is how a friendship starts. Daniel talks to her about art – he brings it alive for her with his description of colour, and collage – and starts Elisabeth off on a journey that will take her to study the work of British pop artist Pauline Boty. As the narrative moves back and forth in time, we get glimpses of Daniel and Elisabeth’s pasts – little pieces of a collage, like those Daniel so beautifully described to Elisabeth – and we see how important this old man was to a child whose only parent was so often not quite there. Now, Elisabeth sits at his bedside reading aloud to him, confident he can hear her.

During his long, long life Daniel has experienced many things, his sister for example – a young woman defying the Nazis. While in the 1960s- he along with the rest of the country watched the political fallout of the Christine Keeler affair. We are reminded how different the political world is now – I have to wonder – along with others I’m sure – what do people have to do now to be finished politically?

Autumn is definitely a novel that accurately depicts the UK as it is now – there are some hilarious Post Office scenes, when Elisabeth goes to try and renew her passport. Alongside which, the more sombre depiction of a nation in flux.

Very glad to have finally joined the Ali Smith party.

Ali Smith

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