Return to Dead End Streets. Pat Barker’s the Century’s Daughter

Barker, Pat. The Century’s Daughter. Virago, 1986.

Almost four years ago, I included a review of Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street in my post “Rambles in Dead End Streets.” Today, I’m considering her third novel. The copy I have from my local library is the original Virago edition with the title The Century’s Daughter. You may also find the work under its later title Liza’s England.

Set in a northern English town, the novel begins when Stephen a community social worker attempts to persuade Liza Wright “née Jarrett” (5) to move from the house where she has lived since 1922 to sheltered accommodation. Liza is the only remaining resident in the street, which is slated for demolition, and Stephen knows his task is almost impossible. Liza is adamant she will not move. What follows is a double narrative driven at first by Liza and Stephen’s conversations and then moving easily among Liza’s memories, her present, and Stephen’s own present. Liza tells the young man about being born at exactly the same moment as the twentieth century and so earning the name “The century’s daughter.” Much of the novel relates what brought Liza to be the lone hanger on in her street, but it also follows Stephen, separated from his roots by his education and by his, unstated to his parents, homosexuality.

As Liza and Stephen come to know and like each other, Barker draws a sensitive, empathic picture of English working-class life from the beginning of the twentieth century to the days of Thatcherism. Where there was once thriving industry, there is now unemployment. Stephen’s prime focus in his job is “to try to get things going for unemployed youngsters.” Those “things” do not include jobs, only “ways of passing the time” (38) for “Dole-queue wallahs built like their steel-making and ship-building fathers, resembling them in this, if in nothing else” (71).

The world into which Liza was born is totally devasted, laid waste around her, destroyed possibly more by the economic situation than it ever was by two world wars. What has been lost is not only the bricks and mortar of the old narrow terraces with their crowded houses, but the sense of neighbourhood or community that once made Liza’s neighbourhood a vibrant, connected place.

The jacket blurb of describes the characters in The Century’s Daughter as “people who have had short shrift both in literature and in life.” This description caught my attention. Barker’s novel goes some way towards addressing this neglect. Written without condescension, The Century’s Daughter provides an empathic appreciation of how one segment of society survived and adapted to the challenges of the twentieth century. Arguably, the situation in Britain has not improved much since 1986. The blast furnaces no longer roar to make steel; whole mining villages are gone; the world of work has shifted. Where once people milled steel, spun cotton, sewed clothing, built ships, the buildings stand empty or gentrified into luxury apartments. Un or under employment is the ongoing lot of many, not only in Britain. Many of Barker’s later books—I’m thinking here of The Regeneration Trilogy and of Life Class,Toby’s Room, and Noonday—are sequentially connected, and I am sorely tempted to wonder what she might envision if she were to address where Stephen’s life might be now: better or worse?  I shall not give in to that temptation. Rather, I shall use the thoughts elected by the novel to think a little about literature about people often given “short shrift” in life and in literature.

For the most part, English literary fiction has, indeed, tended not to valorise the lives of the poor. Even in novels that one might define as including social critique, the people who labour tend to appear as supporting characters. Think about Gaskell’s North and South, or Brontë’s Shirleyor Jane Eyre, for example. I might argue that on occasion Dickens and Hardy sometimes present a broader view. There was, of course, what one might call a surge of working-class “heroes” in the mid-fifties to mid-sixties, but then what? You might be interested in re/(?)reading Tim Lott’s article in The Guardianfrom February 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/07/loneliness-working-class-writer-english-novelists.

Lott makes a distinction between English writers and others writing in English: Scots such as Ali Smith and Irvine Welsh, for example. He further distinguishes writers such as Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, and Hanif Kureishi as “post-colonial voices.” For me, his article raised a lot of questions about the definitions of Englishness, Britishness, and class. Just where today are the divides between the working and the middle and upper classes? Do we look at income, occupation, family background, location, ethnicity, or aesthetic values? Or at that great British divide: vowel sounds? Often what separates people is access to education and the effects of education. These questions obviously go beyond the scope of a short blog post; however, I would argue that the fact that reading Barker’s novel elicits these kinds of questions and set me looking for other commentary on working class literature further testifies to the strength of that novel
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Whither the Fruit of Her Hands? Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife

Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. HarperCollins, 2001.

 Most of us are probably at least vaguely familiar with Proverbs 31 10-31 which defines the

“virtuous woman . . . her price is far above rubies. [pearls or coral in some translations]

11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.

12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.

13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.

20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.

24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.

28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

This version comes from the King James version of the Christian bible, and I quote it at length because I believe it lies at the heart of the Judeo/Christian conception of what a wife is, and it echoed at the back of my mind while I was reading Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife.

What I notice first about these verses is the virtuous woman is defined as a married woman who has a lot of work to do while her husband hangs about with “the elders of the land.” However, all glib cynicism aside, I also notice some other interesting things apart from the apparent understanding that female virtue is best expressed in marriage. Verse 31 commands, “Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” The Christian Revised Version translates the first part of this passage as “Praise her for all she has accomplished,” while the Complete Jewish Bible says, “Give her a share in what she produces.” What an excellent illustration of how translation is also often interpretation. Read carefully, this passage from Proverbs may not be as irritating as it may appear. Look at the introduction to Chapter 31 of Proverbs: “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him.” (Jewish Study Bible. My emphasis). The New English and the Revised English Bibles say, “which his mother taught him”; the Complete Jewish Bible says “disciplined.” The description of the “virtuous woman” comes not from the mouth of a man but from a woman. Indeed, the commentary on this passage in the Jewish Study Bible suggests the virtues outlined in this passage “are essentially shared by the ideal man described elsewhere . . . . Contrary to a common notion of woman’s status in the ancient world, this woman has considerable independence in interacting with outsiders and conducting business, even in acquiring real estate. This allows her husband to spend his time sitting in the city gates, presumably conducting civic business and serving as a judge” (JSB, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Jewish Publication Society-OUPress. 1999.) If we accept that the husband in this case is not just “hanging” around the gates with the elders gossiping and drinking coffee while his wife does all the work but is in fact busily involved in civic business, then what we have presented as an ideal marriage is a shared partnership: one in which both partners contribute to and share in the social and financial benefits of their union.

The key word here, though, is ideal. As Marilyn Yalom’s book shows, marriage has not always been an ideal situation for women, and the designation “wife” not always a happy one.

As her book’s title suggests, Yalom examines the history of our idea of the wife. The book’s Introduction asks, “Is the Wife an Endangered Species?” and her last chapter “Toward the New Wife, 1950-2000” looks at what has changed and is changing about our understanding of what a wife is. The woman who married and the girl who grew up in the fifties have seen an immense change in some respects in the social status of women and in the expectations women have for themselves. Even greater changes have occurred since Yalom published this book in 2001, the year that the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage. More and more cohabiting couples defer or do without formal, legal marriage. With all this change, what does it mean to be a wife?

Does being a wife convey status, and if so, what kind? Certainly, as recently as the early seventies, I remember someone saying to me, “Why are you taking a degree; you already have your MRS?” In other words, to be married was seen as more important and conveying more status than completing an education. While for some, the title wife was positive; for others, it was negative. How many women have been at social events and when asked what they did replied something along the lines of “I’m at home raising two children,” or “I’m just a housewife” and found that people have lost interest in talking to them, even, as a friend reported to me, actually walking away. Notice, too, the use of that diminishing word “just,” to suggest something of minimal value.

I expect, too, many of us remember Judy (now Brady) Syfers’ essay “I Want a Wife” originally published in the first issue of Msand much anthologised since. It struck a nerve. It still does. Even if some contemporary couples share all responsibilities equally, many do not, and study after study shows that domestic tasks still fall primarily to the woman in any heterosexual partnership even if both partners hold down full-time jobs. Just type the question “How much of the housework is done by the working woman?” into your favourite search engine and see what you will see.

So what did and does it mean to be a wife? My OED compact edition devotes three and half compacted columns to looking at the history of the word wife. Yalom devotes ten chapters and an introduction. She begins with the Ancient world, especially the Greeks and Romans, looks at Mediaeval Europe, considers the effect of Protestantism in both Europe and North America, and considers the effect of Eighteenth Century Republicanism on attitudes towards wives and marriage. She then looks at the Victorian period in two chapters: one looking at both Europe and America, and one focussing particularly on the American frontier. Another chapter addresses the situation in the latter years of the Nineteenth Century and is followed by a chapter devoted to “Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in the United States, 1840-1940.” The penultimate chapter deals with the effect particularly of the second world war on women and work, and then she ends, as I mentioned earlier, with her chapter covering the second half of the twentieth century.

I found the book thought provoking, sometimes consciousness raising in the sense we used the term in the late sixties and seventies, and occasionally surprising even disturbing, for example, her use of the word “squaw” (233), a term generally held to be derogatory, in her discussion of the experience of first nations women. Unsurprisingly, since Yalom is American, the latter part of her book focuses primarily on the situation in the United States. I would have liked a somewhat broader perspective. What do contemporary African, Asian, and South American women expect from and experience in marriage? However, I realise that such a task would be encyclopaedic. Certainly of interest but probably not within the scope of this kind of a historical survey are the situations of women such as those covered recently in Extreme Wives,a mini-series presented by Kate Humble for the BBC, released in November 2017, and shown on Knowledge here in BC not long ago.

Each woman who chooses a life partner is going to experience that relationship individually and personally. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in communities accepting of diverse lifestyles are certainly offered more choices than were offered to our mothers and grandmothers. At times, it may well seem that marriage and the whole idea of being a wife has been utterly transformed, and that transformation has been sudden. Yalom thinks otherwise. She sees a gradual evolution, arguing “that the transformation of wifehood in the past fifty years is, in many ways, the distillation of changes that have been going on for a long time—changes that have not been uniform across nations, religions, races, ethnic groups, and social classes yet tend to cluster around certain common issues” (xiii).

In clear prose, uncluttered by social science jargon, A History of the Wife offers an informative and thought-provoking overview of not those “common issues” and of the past that gave birth to them.

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Beyond Mourning: Helen Humphreys’ Coventry

Humphreys, Helen. Coventry. HarperCollins, 2008.

If you read the brief history of Coventry Cathedral on the Cathedral’s own website, http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/wpsite/our-history/  you may gain some idea of what Coventry cathedral stands for. To my parents’ generation of English people, rebuilding of Coventry after the massive destruction of the city and the cathedral became an act of faith in themselves and in their country. One of the most moving episodes of the war for my mother was the night a great glow appeared in the sky to the east of where she lived in the middle of the Worcestershire countryside. The next day the family realised that it had been watching Coventry, just under fifty miles away, burn. My first visit to Coventry was the year the new cathedral was consecrated, 1962. To a girl living in a city whose downtown was still mainly Georgian interspersed with the odd Tudor black and white and whose suburbs remained primarily Victorian, Coventry’s city centre and the cathedral itself were almost violently new. I remember experiencing what came to be called “the shock of the new,” a feeling experienced again when I visited Rotterdam four years later. My Dutch hosts told me laconically, “The old city was destroyed in the war.” Rotterdam remains one of the world’s great entrepots. Coventry in my youth was a place to go shopping, to the theatre, to visit the new cathedral built against the ruins of the old, a place that looked both back and forward into a world of promise and hope. Whether the hope of 1962 has actually been fulfilled is another question entirely.

I’m not sure whether Helen Humphreys’ novel Coventry is really about the City of Coventry or about how tragedy links people. In many ways, the story could just as easily have been set in Rotterdam, Hamburg, Dresden, or Guernica. The Englishness of the characters doesn’t really matter. What is important to the novel is Humphreys’ examination of how our pasts inform our presents, how people make connections, and about how individuals respond to disaster.

Published forty-six years after the opening of the new cathedral and nearly seventy years after the bombardment, the novel spans nearly fifty years: 1914-1962. Two women Harriet and Maeve, both lost newcomers to Coventry, meet just once at the beginning of the first world war. They promise to meet again, but they don’t; not until the night that Coventry is bombed. Harriet Marsh a war widow from the first war is fire watching with a young man, Jeremy, when the bombardment begins. Much of the action of this short novel takes place on the night of 14 -15 November 1940 as Harriet and Jeremy, wander the streets of Coventry trying to find their way to their homes, and Maeve searches for Jeremy, her son.

Meticulously crafted, elegiac and lyrical, heavily reliant upon the present tense, the novel confronts grief and loss, ponders the definitions of love, and underscores the power of art and writing to capture a moment. Most of all, however, it speaks of the resilience inherent in the human heart and reminds us, “Every act is an act of mourning,  . . . Every moment is about leaving the previous moment behind” (174).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Failed Apocalypse? David Burr Gerrard’s The Epiphany Machine

Gerrard, David Burr. The Epiphany Machine. Putnams, 2017. Ebook.

I should possibly have reviewed this novel immediately after finishing Harari’s Homo Deus. In some ways it covers similar ground in that it addresses somewhat the interconnection between data and the way some of us are prepared to give ourselves over to what data apparently reveals about us.

I’m not sure really how I would classify this novel. Science fiction, fantasy, moral allegory, comedy, success, failure? I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

If you could have your major character trait indelibly tattooed on your arm for everyone to see, would you? And if you did, would what was written there make you strive to live up or down to what it said about you? Venter Lowood’s parents apparently believed in the veracity of the epiphany machine and ultimately Venter does, too, and becomes the assistant of the epiphany machine’s operator Adam Lyons.

Told for the most part chronologically from Venter’s point of view, but interspersed with the testimonials collected by Venter, the novel is set in New York and reveals an alternate history of our own times and is intended, I suspect, as a critique of contemporary mores and of American politics and attitudes. It is a coming of age story. Some of my past freshman students in the days when English Departments still offered themes-based courses would have relished pointing out the themes it addresses: self-discovery, conformity and rebellion, the definition of love, loyalty and betrayal, transgression and redemption, and so forth, but it all felt rather comic-book to me. Perhaps I am just too old to enjoy this book. I’m not sure it was written for me.

I found the main character extremely unattractive and unsympathetic. I think Gerrard means me to find him unattractive. I didn’t find the novel entertaining; it strained to be so. The aspect of the work that resonated most closely with me was what happens to Venter’s friend Ismail. I won’t give that away.

As you can see, this post is heavily dependent on “perhaps,” and that dreaded phrase “I think,” which so often suggests a subtext of “well, these are my thoughts; I’m afraid you may disagree with them, but who am I anyway?” The hesitance of my own voice, here, suggests, to me that I found reading this book extremely uncomfortable. Earlier, I suggested the novel “strained” to be entertaining. I sensed the work was grasping towards something and just not quite making it, and though I realise I’m somewhat out of step with other critics here, I ultimately found the work disappointing.

 

 

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Arriving Here. Ali Smith’s Winter

Smith, Ali. Winter. Penguin Canada, 2017.

Opening Ali Smith’s Winter reveals quotations from Shakespeare, Barbara Hepworth, Theresa May, Muriel Spark, and Charles Dickens and surely gives advance notice that once again Smith will be leading her readers on a crazy paving path of wordplay and allusion into a comic world of memory and misapprehension arriving at last at the hope-for, even expected, comic resolution.

The story opens on “A bright sunny post-millennial global-warming Christmas Eve morning” (4-5) and Sophia Cleves is speaking to the “disembodied head . . . . of a child” (7). It ends in July as an American President is “encouraging the Scouts of America, gathered at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, to boo the last President and to boo the name of his own opponent in last year’s election” (322). Don’t worry, your knowing what is written on the last pages of the novel is not going to interfere with your reading the novel. Yes, there is a recognisable story arc, and the story is comic in the sense that Shakespeare’s final comedies are comic, in the way Dickens novels are comic even as they deal with intense human misery and degradation, but knowing the last page won’t take any suspense from your appreciation of plot.

Sophia though she has made little preparation for guests is expecting her son Art and his partner Charlotte for Christmas. She does not know that Charlotte and Art have broken up and that Charlotte has hacked Art’s @rtinnature profile and is emailing all and sundry with incorrect information about supposed sightings of butterflies that don’t exist or that it’s snowing even though its actually “11 degrees and sunny” (50). When Art arrives at his mother’s house, the girl accompanying him is not Charlotte, but Lux, a Croatian whom Art met at a bus stop and whom he has persuaded for a fee to become Charlotte for the duration of his visit. Then there is Iris, Sophia’s long estranged older sister: Iris, progressive, outgoing, undaunted, and politically committed, so apparently different from her sister.1

Relying heavily on interior monologue and analepsis, Smith manipulates elements of her novel to reflect once more on the fractured state of post-Brexit Britain and to critique the absurdities of everyday irritations such as dealing with recalcitrant ATMs and their attendant bank managers. Some readers will no doubt dismiss her manipulation of her prose as nothing more than the acrobatic flourishes of post-modern style, but it is a style that allows her to address what for me is the question at the very heart of the novel: how did we get here from there?

Sometimes, of course, understanding why events and situations have developed as they have is not enough; we need to know how to go on, how to navigate the challenge of the future. In the world of her characters, Smith is able to be somewhat if not optimistic then at least good-humoured. In the world where a president encourages scouts to boo his predecessor and where citizens vote by a bare 51.9% majority to dismantle a way of being and living for their country that for many of them has been the only political reality they’ve known, maintaining optimism let alone good humour is somewhat more challenging.

I always enjoy Ali Smith and appreciate that I’m dealing with a very witty intelligence when I’m reading her books. I agree wholeheartedly with James Wood’s comment: “Sometimes you finish an Ali Smith book unsure about the final meaning of this variety show but certain that you have been in the presence of an artist who rarely sounds like anyone else” (James Wood, “Sounds Like.” The New Yorker. 29 Jan. 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/29/the-power-of-the-literary-pun). I’m wondering how Smith’s individual voice will manifest in Spring, which is apparently scheduled for publication next year.

.1By the way, just consider the significance of those names for a moment: all sorts of resonances and connotations, especially Lux.

 

 

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Resistance? Not so Futile? Questioning the Algorithm. Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. 2015. Trans. Yuval Noah Harari. Signal, 2016.

While Descartes posited “I think; therefore, I am,” today, we know we exist because our profiles exist in cyberspace. “I text, therefore, I am.” (There’s a possible whole other post on the fact that text has become a verb.) In fact, even as another ad. pops onto my screen recalling the fact that yesterday I was looking at lighting fixtures on line, I am one of those who asserts extremely strongly, “I refuse to be only an algorithm!” While I blog, use email, and text, I use little other social media partly because so much of it exists to sell me to advertisers, and partly because I have what is perhaps fast becoming a dated idea of privacy. I still hold to ideas of myself as an individual, of my self being something uniquely mine. I understand that I didn’t arrive here as a totally blank slate; some things are indeed programmed into my DNA, and other aspects of me have been shaped by experience. Nevertheless, I still feel there is something about me that makes me who I am, and I value that individuality, trust my own judgement, and listen to my own feelings. I am very much a product of humanistic thinking.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that now “people just want to be part of the data flow, even if that means giving up their privacy, their autonomy and their individuality” (385). He goes on to argue that we are living through “a religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century” (389).

The book’s subtitle is A Brief History of Tomorrow, and Harari’s vision of the future is not particularly attractive if one is still committed to the humanistic ideas of the essential self and individual freedom. In the future, such concepts may in fact be irrelevant. “When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism” (276). The future will have a new religion: Dataism. Where once we gave authority to invisible gods, and then, in various forms, to human feeling, Dataists will subscribe to a creed that gives authority to the “invisible hand of data flow” (386).

Depressing? Frightening? Outrageous? Heretical? Pragmatic? All of the above and more.

Prefaced by a long introduction “The New Human Agenda” outlining what Homo Deus sets out to achieve, the work is divided into three parts: Homo Sapiens Conquers the World, Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World, and Homo Sapiens Loses Control. We as a species may be losing control, but Harari’s control and development of his ideas is logical; his tone, personal, persuasive and confident; his theories, clearly explained and illustrated; his vision of the future, possibly a shock to the very core of our sense of ourselves. Or possibly not, especially if one is comfortable with the idea that one’s value as an entity if any is not in any individual sense of self but in the value of the data emitted from the particular entity one might refer to as I or myself.

Evoking for me the dystopian worlds encountered in Brave New World and Star Trek, the future posited by Harari isn’t, I imagine, particularly attractive to most of us. Whether our political leanings are to the right or the left or whether we espouse a god centred faith or not, the idea of being absorbed into a collective such as the Borg (Star Trek)or being programmed for a certain kind of contentment (Brave New World) denies us a sense of self and a right of choice. But perhaps my anxiety is but a reflection of the world view in which I was encultured: western humanism. “I have no faith in democracy,” a student once said to me; “I don’t believe it will work in my country.” What struck me then was the student’s use of the words “faith” and “believe,” and reading Harari and considering his definitions of religion recalled that conversation to me. When people stop believing in shared narratives, when they lose faith, the systems built on that faith fail.

Harari suggests that Dataism may replace humanism. He is not saying that it will. His work’s conclusion is not an assertion of inevitability; it’s a challenge to us to consider how we shape the narrative that will articulate what we value and define the future.

I’ve no doubt you will find this book absorbing and disturbing.

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To Everything a Season?: Ali Smith’s Autumn


Smith, Ali. Autumn. Penguin, 2017.

Autumn is a strange season, at its beginning a golden “season of mellow fruitfulness” (Keats “Ode to Autumn) but also at its end the harbinger of winter which “raineth drop and staineth slop” (Pound “Ancient Music”). Some see Autumn as the period of abundance and harvest; to others, it’s the beginning of the end, a season of farewell. Even Keats’ poem “To Autumn” ends with the image of swallows preparing to leave. Shelley responds to the season with “Autumn: A Dirge” and focuses on death and departure. I begin this post with these somewhat self-conscious references to poems addressing autumn and winter because Ali Smith’s Autumn is itself highly allusive. Its opening sentence “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” (3) plays with the opening sentence of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. If I were to annotate my copy of the book marking every literary reference or word play that recalls another work, my book would be densely annotated.

Autumn is set just after the vote that committed the British to leave the EU. What the result of that vote revealed is a Britain fragmented, polarized, at odds with its present, anxious about the future, nostalgic about its past. The novel itself is fragmented. I was about to say it follows the lives of Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth Demand, but it would be better to say displays or presents. This is not a wholly linear narrative; it twists and turns between the present and the past, between the longed-for and the forgotten. Reading it is something akin to looking at kaleidoscope: the pieces making the pattern shift and change. Nothing is stable. The pieces fall randomly. Only Elisabeth’s struggles to have a passport application approved at the Post Office follow a normal chronology through the book. Elisabeth’s initial frustrating encounter with bureaucracy in the Post Office—there is always something wrong with her photograph—could stand alone as a satirical short story and is almost (Monty) Pythonesque in its critique.

Despite the flashbacks and shifting focalization, as one reads, one senses how the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel Gluck developed. At eight years old, Elisabeth was assigned a homework project to interview a neighbour. Despite her mother’s disapproval, Elisabeth chose Daniel Gluck. Twenty-four years later, Elisabeth, now a university sessional lecturer in art history, visits the mostly comatose Daniel in a care home as he hovers between life and death. As the work moves towards its conclusion, we discover that Daniel has been mentor and friend to Elisabeth despite her mother’s anxieties. Moving between Daniel and Elisabeth, between now and then, the reader is offered not only a meditation on the instability of memory but also a celebration of the different, of the unusual, of the non-conforming. The reader discovers how much of what drives Elizabeth now—her interest in art history, for example, particularly in the rediscovered work of Pauline Boty—is the result of Daniel’s gentle tutelage during her childhood and youth. Interwoven with the fiction are threads of Britain’s cultural and political past, especially the early sixties when Britain was rocked by the scandals of the Profumo affair but was also experiencing what was for some a time of invigorating cultural questioning and energy.

As one rather expects of Smith’s work, this is not a simple book. It is witty, somewhat acid, Horatian in its humour. It’s a book about anxiety, frustration, and perhaps forgiveness; a book about loss and about love, about being and knowing oneself, about the power of language and the power of art. A novel that is at once a meditation on post-Brexit Britain and a celebration of the individual, it’s a book about hope.

It’s also the first in a planned quartet of books. I have Winter in my “to be read” pile. What will Spring and Summer bring when they appear?

 

 

 

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