Lucky me, and didn’t I pick well. I’m determined to read more in 2018, and I’ve made a running start. Tús maith and all that…
Autumn by Ali Smith
This is a moving, compassionate and brilliant work. Oblique at time in its writing but very much worth sticking with. It’s set in current-day UK and while it refers to BREXIT and the issues of racism and nationalism appear, it’s not a BREXIT novel at all (don’t believe the press hype), it’s about the deep and life-long friendship between Elisabeth, (from child to adult) and Daniel (a neighbouring gay older man).
The friendship entwined with the art of a neglected British artist, Pauline Boty.
With a long narrative arc, the time in the book drifts back and forth and the tone is generally playful and light, if testing. Very funny at times, Elisabeth’s interactions with officials at a passport office should be compulsory reading for all public servants. Her back and forth with her mother and Daniel, when’s she’s very young is funny too.
The point of view is mostly Elisabeth’s, especially when she grows from a working-class girl to an art academic. Some brief POV sections from Daniel which are strange and wonderful – the opening one, when he’s ‘dead’ especially.
Her obsession with the artist Pauline Boty and the entwining of that, and the Christine Keeler ‘incident’, is complex but expertly done.
Very engaging and bold book, mesmerising at times, no wonder it won so many prizes and was so widely nominated.
Interesting layout on the page too, with the text not justified right and very little space on the top or bottom of the page. I’m not sure why they did that, but I can’t recall having seen it before. I’m not sure what it does for the reader, but the font size seems quite big so maybe the spacings would have been off-putting had it been justified right like other books.
Very much looking forward to reading Winter (Spring and Summer too!)
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
Books about alcoholics and addicts are rarely cheerful, but can be engaging and moving nonetheless. And as alcoholics go, Gerry Gilmore isn’t the worst, certainly nowhere on the scale of, for example, the protagonists of AL Kennedy’s Paradise or John Healy’s The Grass Arena.
Who needs cheerful anyway, when you can have the level of intimacy and insight that MacLaverty brings?
Stella, Gerry’s wife, has her own demons, which is perhaps the wrong word, since her existential crisis is one of how to live out her spirituality and repay a debt to God. Amsterdam seems a strange place to seek such a haven of religion, but the contrast it gives as a locale, taking them both out of their routine and towards a kind of interventionist climax, works very well. Having been on a winter break there myself with Ciara last year, the sense of place was very vivid and true.
Gerry’s constant struggle to have a drink at hand is horrible and poignant and very real, such is MacLaverty’s craft. His justifications and playing down of his drinking make it even more true – the best of unreliable narrators, we can see what he cannot, or will not admit.
Stella’s faith is, perhaps, more problematic and not as strong in her POV sections, but the telling of a marriage and its many nuances is brilliantly done. The dialogue between them is wonderful, the back-and-forth, the little tics, like always kissing when alone in a lift. The underlying problems within the marriage, less so, despite Gerry’s drinking. I never really became Stella, in the way that I was Gerry, when reading – perhaps that’s just me.
Still, there is no doubting the mastery of the writing, its rhythms and flows. The balancing act of the novel, the timing of the reveals, the back and forth from then to now.
The build-up to a climax is slow and sure. The build up to the trauma they both endured many years before is also well embedded, especially so late in the text. The physical descriptions of the ageing body are vivid – never will you read such a description of a fall in a shower or a cramp!
A brilliant read, especially for anyone fortunate enough to be in a long term relationship with all it holds, or unfortunate to be on the wrong side of fifty-five.