Posts Tagged ‘Angela Carter’

Review: ‘Spring’ by Ali Smith

August 17, 2019

This is my first brush with Ali Smith’s work, and I have joined in at book three of a tetralogy. Oh dear, I hear you say. That’s not going to go well, then. Au contraire.

Spring is without doubt the best novel I have read this year, nor do I anticipate I shall read another as good. The previous two were shortlisted for the Booker and the Orwell Prize respectively. This one isn’t up for any glittering prizes except the Not-the-Booker. I cannot understand why.

It begins thus: “Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment.” I won’t go on. I could. It’s all worth quoting. I love the pseudo word cloud/shock headline emphases in the first bit; the lack of chapter headings, the division into parts (making navigation just a little bewildering); the voice of the protagonists, especially the one who slips between being dead and not yet dead.

I like the way Smith uses the building blocks of text in a slightly different, subversive way. Dialogue is clear, but she eschews speech marks. There is a flow to that which I like: it also reinforces that slight bewilderment, which I also like. What pass for chapters are short. There is (in the hardback copy I borrowed from the library) loads of white space and heavy creamy paper. All that has an effect: it is like walking on a foggy moor. I don’t think the spaciousness of the book is as evident in the paperback. And obviously will be quite lost on a Kindle.

I like my novels to have plenty of plot. This has almost no plot (which is why I borrowed it from the library instead of buying it: I didn’t anticipate wanting to finish it, let alone praise it). I’m not sure it has characterisation either, really. Note I say above ‘the voice of the protagonists’. It is a great, vibrant, rock-on sort of voice, but all the characters sound as if Smith is speaking through them. And why not? This is a novel of ideas. It is in Orwellian territory, raising ‘political writing to an art form’ (hence the nomination of Smith’s Winter for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction last year). So all the characters are prisms-of-Smith – and great prisms they are, each is fascinating, each dovetails with the others.

Spring is about NOW, about how brutalised and brutalising we have become. How ignorant and yet how all-knowing. It is a brilliant, fizzing, satirical polemic that excoriates us all. Except the dead/not yet dead Paddy, who we may as well call St Paddy for her brilliant wit, book smarts, come-backs and put-downs.

It has an edgy British sort of magic realism, as a 12 year old girl goes where adults do not think to or dare not, through locked doors, like an angel might. She makes a difference. As she goes she drags with her a detention centre officer, an ageing film maker who has agreed to make a film he despises and a Scottish woman who … no, I can’t tell you that: spoiler.

This book sits happily alongside those of Fay Weldon or Angela Carter. And it’s great to see this sort of uncompromising fiction has come back into fashion. (Of course, I’m way behind the curve here, as Ali Smith fans will doubtless point out – she has been banging out excellent books for years. But we all have to start somewhere with the reading of them.)

I fancy that when we come to look back at this bleak and embarrassing period, which will by then have solidified into ‘modern UK history’, this (like Coe’s The Rotters’ Club) may be something we turn to in order to understand what it was really like.

There is plenty of Anglo Saxon in this. You will need not to mind f**k and c**t bespattered conversations as you progress through this book full of wise insights into the way we live now.

The covers of this quartet of books are reproductions of those prints by David Hockney of the same farm track in each phase of the year. The same but different. Made on an iPad. Very appropriate.

I’ll leave you with this final thought from the book:

“What we want is need. What we need is want.”

Review of ‘The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker’ by Bobbie Darbyshire (2019, Sandstone Press)

March 19, 2019

The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whitaker by [Darbyshire, Bobbie]A new novel from Bobbie Darbyshire is an event to celebrate. Here one is. Huzzah!

I have seen her new novel described as ‘quirky’. As she has created her own version of the afterlife I wouldn’t argue with that epithet. When we first meet Sir Harry Whittaker, inheritor of Olivier’s mantle, he is already dead – albeit recently. Subsequently it is agreed by all those dealing with his estate that he was not a very nice man. With all this against him how is Darbyshire going to make a satisfactory protagonist out of him? But this is, as it were, a crossover novel as there are vibrant living characters in this drama as well as the dead one. All have their flaws; also pathos and redeeming qualities. These living characters are all affected by Sir Harry’s Last Will and Testament.

The story reminded me of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in which the ‘rude mechanicals’, the fairy folk, and the love-sick nobles flit about a magical wood looking for their hearts’ desires and ways to achieve them. For ‘magical wood’ read ‘Brighton’ (dear Brighton, so warmly drawn!). As with MND, there is a nexus towards which all the characters are drawn. The nexus is dead Harry Whittaker, his Will, his cat and his portrait. The various characters bump into each other quite logically, if apparently out of the blue – again as in MND – and are forever changed. The magic of Darbyshire’s world draws in just the right characters and gives them exactly what they need.

The substantial cast of characters are beautifully realised. They demonstrate that trying to define ‘normal’ is a fool’s game and that nobody is ever average. There is pink hair. There is a pack rat. There is a port wine stain. There is a solicitor. The reader is guided accurately through the activities of this ever-increasing cast as they swirl through the pages of the book. One wonders how so much can possibly be brought to a conclusion. But order is brought out of chaos, as Darbyshire shows us precisely each character’s place in her schema.

One doesn’t come across magic realism that often in British writing. Angela Carter is the author who springs immediately to mind when searching for a work comparable with this. Darbyshire is a kinder writer than Carter, but with this novel is definitely operating in a similar milieu.

This is a lovely book about the possibility of becoming a better person than you ever thought you could be.



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