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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 10 February 2019

"Winter" by Ali Smith

This is the second of the 'Four Seasons' tetralogy that Smith is writing about Britain after the Brexit referendum. It follows Autumn.

Smith has a unique way of writing. She doesn’t really narrate a single story. Instead she puts together little snippets of narrative in a sort of collage so that we can build up her characters and at the same time understand her themes. As she herself says in Part Three: “That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once.”This makes her books not simply linear, as most standard narrative fiction is, but two or even three dimensional: there is the story, the characters, the understory. We might never find out what is going to happen next but we have had a glimpse into the lives of some very real people and we understand a little more about the world in which we live. This book is a perfect example of her craft.

Each fragment of the collage is very carefully crafted. She follows Orwell's dictum that 'good prose is like a windowpane'. For example, I know exactly what she means by this description in Part One: “He is here on a communal PC the keyboard of which makes the fingers on his hands feel as inept as some love making sessions he'd rather not recall.” And this from Part Three: “The whole room turns towards her in that unnatural way owls can move their heads right round without moving the rest of their bodies.

She also has a prose style which feels very intimate in which she sort-of splurges in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, which draws you in as a friend, and yet is so sophisticated. For example, this is a woman shortly after making love: “Later on her way home, as she walks down a street, there’ll be words again, she’ll be dazed with it, blasted by it, made roofless like a house after a gale with it and the walls all down, made open, maybe such a thing as too pen because this street she’ll be on, it’s a pretty run-down street but it will be vibrant to her, though below her there’ll be nothing but a pavement, but beautiful, the pavement, well get real, pavements aren’t beautiful, and the bus shelter a beauty, buildings, scruffy, beautiful, beautiful fast food place, shockingly beautiful coin-operated launderette full of strangers whose profiles in the late evening sun are, yes, though she knows they aren’t really, but they will be, right then, unbelievably beautiful.

It might be thought that this means that the structure of the book, its 'plot', is less important to her but this book is structured after the three phases of the Christmas Carol: past (Christmas Eve), present (Christmas Day) and future (Boxing Day). Furthermore there are moments which loop back. For example, one of the first things that Sophie says to Lux is that her "face is full of little holes". At the time I thought this referred to the eye problems that Sophie might be having. But later on we are told that “It would be good to be full of holes ... Then all the things you can’t express would maybe just flow out.” This rather summarises Lux (which Lux says is short for Velux, after the window). Furthermore the vision of the head which Sophie sees at the start of the book is paired with Art's visions towards the end of a section of the coastline falling from the sky.

It starts in a very Dickensian way by adapting the start of a Christmas Carol: “God was dead, to begin with.” It then lists all the other things that are dead in a way which reminded me of the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” start to the Tale of Two Cities or the “Fog everywhere” second paragraph of Bleak House.

Part One:
In Part One, Sophie, an old lady who was once a successful businesswoman, is hallucinating a head. This reminded me of Scrooge, hallucinating Marley’s Ghost. She goes to the Opticians and the bank and is rather annoyed by what she sees as the rudeness of modern life and, again like Scrooge, the banks closing early when she wants her money. Later, in Part Two, she will be described as miserly. There is also a reminder of Christmas Carol in the way Sophie will remember Christmases from her past. She grew up with a rebellious sister called Iris who later became a peace protestor at Greenham.

We also learn about Art, Sophie’s son, who has broken up with his girlfriend Charlotte and now has to find a woman to pretend to be Charlotte when he goes to his mum’s house for Christmas.

But when Art and the hired girl, Lux, get to his mum’s rambling old mansion (which used to be the squat that Iris lived in) Sophie is unwelcoming and there is no food in the house. In an obvious reference to the Nativity story, she tells Lux to sleep in the barn. Instead, Lux phones Iris to come and help, even though she is told that the two sisters haven’t spoken for thirty years.

Great lines from Part One:

  • “The traffic jam congealing in all directions.”
  • “Your default to selfishness is not ok at all.”
  • “Solstice, she said. You said it. Darkest days ever. There's never been a time like this. Yes there has, he said. Solstices are cyclic and they happen every year.”
  • “That's what he is, a language no one else alive in the world speaks. He is the last living speaker of himself. ... He himself is dead as a disappeared grammar, a graveyard scatter of phonemes and morphemes.”

Part Two:
In Part Two there are more memories from Art and from Sophie, which suggest that Iris helped to bring Art up when he was too young to remember, a fact that his mother furiously denies. And there is a wonderful Christmas lunch, which reminded me of the brilliantly horrible dinner party in Smith’s There But For The, in which we explore the play of Cymbeline in which “A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning.” is a powerful metaphor for Britain after the Brexit vote, and compare ‘No room at the Inn’ with the refusal to accept economic migrants.

Great lines from Part Two:
  • “It might be worth it, to re-experience what it's like to be sick, because from what she remembered there was a certain pleasure in it, anarchic force of clearance.”
  • “One of those powerful liminal times in a life when death isn't just preferable to being alive, because you feel so lousy, also but that also let you negotiate with the powers that be about your own living or dying.”
  • “There was always a furious intolerance at work no matter when or where in history, she thought, and it always went for the head or the face. She thought of the burnt-off scraped-off faces of the mediaeval painted saints on the wooden altar screens in hundreds of churches.”
  • “It was meant as a warning. Take a look at what your saints are truly made of. It was the demonstration that everything symbolic will be revealed as a lie, everything you revere nothing but burnt matter, broken stone, as soon as it meets whatever shape time’s contemporary cudgel takes.”
  • “None of these things is happening here. They are all happening far away, elsewhere. ... What does here mean anyway, I'd like to know. Everywhere’s a here, isn’t it?”
  • “It is the dregs, really, to be living in a time when even your dreams have to be post-postmodern consciouser-than-thou.”
  • “Surreal was the word. Above real.”
  • “And now for our entertainment when we want humiliation we've got reality TV instead ... And soon instead of reality TV we’ll have the President of the United States.”
  • “I'm me all right ... I'm more me than I care to admit.”
  • “In real life you seem detached, but not impossible.”
  • “But what will the world do ... if we can't sort the problem of the millions and millions of people with no home to go to or whose homes aren't good enough, except by saying go away and building fences and walls? It isn't a good enough answer, that one group of people can be in charge of the destinies of another group of people and choose whether to exclude them or include them. Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous. We've got to come up with a better answer.”

Part Three
In the third part, which starts with a scene in the future in which Art is reading A Christmas Carol with his son, reconciliations abound and there are parallels drawn between Joseph, father of Jesus, and the man Art thinks is his father.

Great lines from Part Three:

  • “Whatever being alive is, with all its pasts and presents and futures, it is most itself in the moments when you surface from a depth of numbness or forgetfulness that you didn't even know you were at, and break the surface”
  • “We’re all apocrypha.”
  • “It's the ghost of a flower not yet open on its stem, the real thing long gone, but look, still there, the mark of the life of it reaching across the words on the page for all the world like a footpath that leads to the lit tip of a candle.”
Ali Smith is perhaps the most original and innovative writer in England at the moment. Her corpus is astounding. It includes: 
  • How To Be Both which contains two linked stories either of which can be read first (indeed, they are printed in a different sequence in different editions with no clue as to which you have bought until you start reading)
  • The Accidental
  • Artful which interweaves a ghost story with lectures about the art of literature.

February 2019; 322 pages

Thanks to my sister Jane for yet another brilliant Christmas present.

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