Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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This was a re-read of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first instalment in her ‘Seasons’ Quartet. It is, after all, a book which you can only take so much from on a first reading, since it is so wide-ranging in terms of its frame of reference, and it is crammed with internal echoes which are easily missed.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Autumn has been described as a post-Brexit novel, but it’s much more than that. True, it considers the way we become victims of our own lies and prejudices; erecting fences and borders in a deluded attempt to keep ourselves safe. But it also has a lot to say about the way we construct stories, about the way those stories unfold in time and space, and in turn construct our own sense of identity. And deep down, it’s also a love story of an extraordinary kind.

Danie Gluck is 101 years old, sleeping and suspended in his own subconscious; his memories merging with his dreams until it becomes impossible to know where the past ends and imagination takes over. His sole visitor at the Maltings Care Providers Plc is young art historian Elisabeth Demand, who befriended Daniel when he was her neighbour over twenty years earlier. Daniel’s conversations with young Elisabeth about art, books and story-telling, time, truth and lies, created a bond between them which Elisabeth later recognises as a kind of love. The love which enables one person to see another clearly. For as Daniel says, “we have to hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.” (160)

Flitting freely between perspectives and time, Autumn is a bit like being on the inside of someone else’s memories. “Time travel is real,” Daniel claims. “We do it all the time.” This does not just concern personal memories but myth, literature, art, politics and popular culture, all of which get incorporated into Daniel and Elisabeth’s sense of self; their lives fusing with the books they read and the art they witness. Memory, then, emerges as a kind of mental collage, analogous to the collages of pop artist Pauline Boty whose joyous life and tragic death forms another narrative strand of this complex and beautiful novel.

As Smith states in an interview with Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann, “…love is multiple, various, takes all forms, is non-exclusionary; it will not be coralled, will not be given a shape, refuses to be fixed, and in that way unfixes us all. Thank God.” Few people can write with such truth about love, and of how much we lose in its absence.

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Review: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

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Ellen Kushner’s second-world fantasy Swordspoint is one of those books I wish I’d picked up a while back, and for some reason never did. It’s a novel which  bursts with the kind of elements I love in historical fantasy the most: courtly intrigue, superlative world building, queer characters and swords. Lots of swords. Don’t ask me why – there’s probably something very Freudian behind it which I’d rather not think about.

Anyway, set in an unnamed city which seems part restoration London, part Quattrocento Florence, disputes are settled at swords point; the nobility often hiring professional swordsmen to fight on their behalf in matters of honour. Enter Richard St Vier who is the best of them all – a man with a murky past who is skilled enough to be choosy when it comes to his patrons. And his lover, Alec – a man with an even murkier past, who tends to bring out the psychopath in Richard, egging him on to yet bloodier deeds.

Richard becomes embroiled in the machinations of the nobility who live on ‘the Hill’ – the smart side of town, and finds his own reputation and ultimately his life jeopardised as a result. And while I’ve read other reviews referring to this story as a ‘fantasy of manners’, with an emphasis on capturing atmosphere and character, I found myself gripped by the plot, as Richard becomes an unwitting pawn on an intricate playing board.

The one thing that niggled was the representation of female characters who were, for the most part, scheming aristocrats a la Dangerous Liaisons, happy whores or eventually docile wives. I could have done with a woman whose role went beyond fairly obvious stereotypes. I also felt there were a few subplots that would have been worth a bit more development. Richard didn’t seem particularly haunted by one of the more shocking events from his past; and Alec’s foray into astronomy was little more than a passing allusion.  However, there was so much else going on here that it was hard to keep track of those lesser plot lines.

The novel is beautifully written in clear, precise prose and with an attention to detail that leaves you in no doubt, as a reader, of how Kushner wants you to feel – from the dangerous alleyways of Riverside, to the refined gardens and palaces of the Hill. It’s a book which very much serves as an antidote to fantasy conventions of good versus evil, or tradition versus modernity. Really worth a read.

Review: Beowulf for Cretins by Ann McMan

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Sometimes you find yourself yearning for the characters you encounter in books to be people you really know. They’re so artfully brought to life that you think, “I would give anything to be in on this conversation; to sit down with this lady and share a bottle of wine with her.”

At least, that was how I felt about Grace Warner – hapless heroine of Ann McMan’s novel Beowulf for Cretins. With her self-deprecating wit, her inner conflicts and her absolute devotion to the woman she loves, Grace is the kind of character you root for from beginning to glorious end.

Following a messy break-up, Grace finds herself indulging in an “over-night rental” – as she terms it – with a beautiful stranger at a party. Back at the liberal arts college where Grace works teaching freshman English, it turns out that her one-night stand just happens to be her new boss. And while Grace ends up falling hopelessly in love with Abbie – the new president of St Alban’s college – she knows that it’s a relationship which could spell disaster for both of them.

Both Abbie and Grace are the kind of leading ladies who really don’t get enough airtime in fiction: mature women who are warm, intelligent and flawed enough that you can fully relate to them. At the same time, the novel dishes up an eclectic “supporting cast” of characters ranging from CK – a punk physics genius who pulls no punches as Grace’s best friend – to Dean – Grace’s ‘Cro-Magnon’ of a brother, and of course Grendel – the misfit freak of a dog that Grace finds herself saddled with.

The dialogue fairly zings with wit, and beneath the comedy there’s always a hint of the insecurities and sensitivities which make Grace such a fascinating character – from her lapsed Catholic heritage to the jealousies and politics of campus life.

Just a perfect read which made me want to rush out and buy all of Ann McMan’s books right away.