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review 2017-10-03 17:24
"Autumn" by Ali Smith - shortlisted for 2017 Mann Booker Prize
Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith

Set in 2016 Post-Brexit vote Britain, "Autumn" revolves around the experiences of a young art historian and the old man who helped her learn to see and think when she was a child. The story moves up and down the timeline of both their lives and flips from strange, presumably allegorical, dream sequences, through discussions of art and imagination and freedom through to hyper-real depictions of the modern life.

 


The opening chapter is an allegorical dream sequence that screams the literary equivalent of college band concept album and was almost enough to make me stop reading, yet the next chapter got my complete attention.with a sequence about going into to use the “Quick Check” passport service in the ruined post offices our governments have created as they've pillaged public assets. Ali Smith makes this familiar activity fresh by a muted rage that clings to irony and comic observation as it hangs above the pit of despair that life in a totalitarian state produces.

 


"Autumn" is a book you have to engage with rather than glide through. It's a conversation with the reader rather than an entertainment. For the most part, it was a conversation that I took a lot of pleasure in but there were some parts, dream sequences, long lists of how Brexit split the nation, where I felt as if I wandered into the "Time Passes" section of "To The Lighthouse": I knew I was reading something bold and innovative but it didn't really engage me.

 

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"Autumn" made me re-examine what I thought I knew about the allegedly swinging sixties in England. I was four in 1960 and I realised it's a period that I've never really examined from an adult point of view. I grew up being aware of things referred to in "Autumn" like Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair,  and (at the time) risqué movies like "Alfie" but had no real understanding of them. They were too recent and too long ago.

 ]1939"It's A Man's World" by Pauline Boty[/caption]

I came to British Pop Art much later, so I thought I'd be on firmer ground but I was completely unaware of the work of Pauline Boty, who features heavily in the book and who Ali Smith examined in a piece in the Guardian.  Seeing pop art through the eyes of Ali Smith's characters made me hungry for it, even though most of it normally slides past me.

 

This is a book of big themes and real people. It explores the relationship between memory and imagination and how they compete and cooperate to construct and sustain the story of our lives that we tell to ourselves and others. It’s about seeing past the obvious to the real. It’s about a bloody-minded refusal to give in to all the people and institutions that try to make us live smaller lives. It's about borders and crossing them or being kept out. It’s about triumphing by finding a way to express joy.


This was my first Ali Smith book. It wasn’t always an easy experience but it was a memorable one. “Autumn” is the first of a four-novel seasonal sequence covering how the contemporaneous relates to the diachronic. I will be back for the rest.

 

The first link below is an extract from the audiobook. The second link is Ali Smith talking about "Autumn" to the TLS:

 

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review 2017-08-25 22:34
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

I found "Reservoir 13" hard to engage with at first. This partly the (I suspect, deliberate) frustration of my expectations and partly the style in which the people and events are presented.

 

The blurb says

"Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss."

The book opens with a search across the hills of an English National Park, for a teenage girl who has gone missing. My genre-led expectations kicked in and I settled down to a book about crime and guilt and secrets in a small village, with the mystery solved in a few weeks, during which colourful local characters and traditions are scrutinised and set aside as the villain is uncovered.  I knew that the book was on the Mann Booker Longlist, so I was expecting some trope twisting but I wasn't expecting something that rejects every convention of a crime novel.

 

I quickly amended my view of what the book was about but still found it difficult to care about because the story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little dialogue there is, rather than using direct speech and describes people and events with all the passion of an academic wildlife study.

 

I felt that I was being given a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for reasons that weren't immediately clear to me. 

 

I recognised that I was being shown the rhythm of rural village life where people's lives are governed by the seasons, personal routines and the politenesses required by long-term propinquity but the rhythms did not provide a narrative thrust.

 

I felt locked out of the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. The authorial voice seemed to have all the intimacy of a camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.

 

About a third of the way through, I finally surrendered myself to the rhythm of the book and let it carry me along.  It reminded me of the adjustment in pace that I had to make when I moved to a village in Somerset after living for years in London. I had to slow down to see the place. I had to let it absorb me before I could be part of it.

 

"Reservoir 13" shows how life is lived in a village. As thirteen years worth of seasons passed, I was given a surface view of all the things that people in a small village know about each other: the gossip, the constant observation of each others acts and the things they don't say or don't ask. I cam to understand how the politeness of being indirect grants dignity and privacy while still offering the possibility of sharing the things you cannot bear alone.

 

Initially, direct speech was less frequent than descriptions of wildlife or weather but, as the years passed and the context had been established, I was allowed to hear certain conversations and evesdrop on interior monologues.

 

The people in the village are following the same tidal flows as the wildlife around them and, just as Il earned about the courtship of badgers in the woods, I was shown that most human mating rituals are led by women and conducted through body language and eye contact more than words.

 

Some characters found their way into my affections: the vicar, carrying around everyone's cares and confidences, like heavy stones in her pockets, who brings comfort and compassion wherever she goes; the woman who walks her neighbour's dog every day but still treats each time as if it were something new.

 

The missing girl is not the centre of the book but rather something that distorts the flow of village life without adding to it, She is like a water-logged piece of driftwood that only occasionally surfaces but is always there, disturbing the peace of the water.

 

She has her own leitmotiv that often marks her appearance

 

 "The girl's name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for and she hadn't been found."

 

She is a constant reminder of the possibility of loss and perhaps and incentive to hold on to those we love for as long as we can.

 

"Reservoir 13" has a distinct voice and an unusual structure that did, eventually, imprint the village on my imagination and made me reluctant to leave. The narrative doesn't thrust, it shapes your perception of people and events with gentle persistence, like a stream eroding one bank and building up another.
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text 2017-08-20 09:35
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist - this is not going well
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

From the description this sounds like a crime book - teenage girl goes missing on the hills above a small village - doubt - suspicion - secrets - yet it's on the Mann Book Longlist so I was expecting something with a twist.

 

I wasn't expcting something so difficult to engage with.

 

The story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little diaglogue there is rather than using direct speech.  The narration is a dispassionate description of events with all the passion of a more academic wildlife study.

 

This is mostly a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for no apparent reason.

 

There is a  focus on time passing and routines like seasons governing people's lives that gives the book a pleasant rhythm without providing any narrative thrust.

 

No access to the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. It has all the intimacy of a

camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.

 

I suspect the author is trying to do something new with form and that I should be delighted that he is eschewing the conventions of the genre. Instead, at more than an hour in to and eight hour book, I am still wondering what will make this book worth reading.

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review 2017-08-14 13:19
"History Of Wolves" by Emily Fridlund (on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist)
History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

"History of Wolves" is easy to read but harder to understand.

 

I know how I feel about this book but I'm not sure what to think about it.

 

It's a beautiful piece of writing that uses language with relentless precision to climb inside the head of the main character.

 

Each page is watermarked with a profound sense of loneliness that the main character, our narrator, struggles with, denies, rails against, imagines gone and sometimes gives in to.

 

I felt fully present in each of the moments described in this book. So much so that, as we drifted between past, present, imagination, dream, memory and action, I found myself accepting what was going on rather than trying to make sense of it, much in the same way that the main character does.

 

Novels amplify my desire for a narrative that makes sense, that tells me something, that gives me meaning. "History of Wolves" frustrates that expectation. Rather than leading me to a conclusion or a judgement and "making sense" of the main character's life for me, this novel invites me to reach my own conclusions and then to challenge them and then to wonder if conclusions are devised to be a source of spurious comfort in an ambiguous world.

 

The story is told by Madeline, now thirty-seven, revisiting the events of a summer when she was fourteen and the things that led up to it and followed on from it.

 

Madeline, who also goes by the name Linda at school and with the family she babysits for, is both the most unreliable of narrators and the most honest of narrators. She shares who she is by showing what she has done and what she was thinking and feeling at the time but she gives no direct lectures, even to herself, on what this means.

 

Her narrative is not linear. It follows her reflections, making connections between past and present and starting from different "nows" as she tells her tale.

 

Madeline/Linda both accepts and rejects the idea that she is broken, that her childhood made her into someone with one foot always reaching out into space at the edge of the cliff. She sees herself, or perhaps her idealised self, not as someone human but as a wild thing, at home in the woods and on the lake but who still sometimes succumb to the pull of a hearth and food and a pat behind the ear, like a wolf playing at being a domestic dog.

 

The book cover carries a Jodi Picoult style "How far would you go to belong?" tag line on the cover that seems to me to miss the meaning of this book entirely.

 

I don't think it's belonging that Madeline's looking for, or even love. I think she wants someone who needs her and depends on her and supports her in an identity she approves of.

 

Madeline can be cruel and fickle. She is aware of the power she has over others. She is also aware of her own insignificance. She seems to be trying to find people and a place where she can be what she is and still be needed by someone who sees her clearly.  Except that is too glib. It may be what she wants but  she would probably resist anyone who tried to give it to her.

 

"History of Wolves" walks around two ways of establishing identity: "We are what we do" and "We are what we think". Madeline, at least the thirty-seven year old Madeline, doesn't seem to find either argument persuasive. The way she reviews her own life suggests that she believes that we are who we are and it doesn't change much.  At one point she goes further and suggest that evil enters the world when we let our actions be driven by belief, a personal narrative that tells us what we want to be true and absolves us from dealing with reality.

 

I need to think about "History of Wolves" some more. I probably need to read it again. Not because it's a puzzle I haven't solved or because the writer's intention escapes me but because I think it has more to show me.

 

The book often refers to the difficulty of recognition, of seeing clearly, either through fog, or through the loss of light at dusk or the emerging glow at dawn, or even the struggle to recognise objects identified on the journey out but which look unfamiliar on the way home and can only be recognised in retrospect. I think there is something here that says we need to let our eyes adjust to shape our world and that we need a point of reference. In this book, I think I saw each moment clearly but I have not yet been able to map the journey. Which makes it feel pretty much like real life to me.

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