So, this happened today at the Edinburgh Book Fest.....
Ali Smith read from her new - not-even-published-yet - book. She only finished "Autumn" recently and handed it to her publisher on Monday. Monday, people! This was the first EVER reading of it.
I mean, I would have loved anything she would have picked, but this was special. Not only was this the first time she shared her new work with an audience, but the parts we heard were excellent. She's trying something new with this novel - which will be the first of a cycle of four, all tied to a season. She said she wants them all to be standalone books (so it's not a series - thank goodness! - I'm not good with series) but they follow a common thread or theme.
But of course, this is Ali Smith. I would have been surprised if her new book was not experimental!
The other aspect that drew me and most of the audience in, was that she picked discussions of a decidedly current nature to feature in the new book: storytelling as the act of welcoming people, Brexit, self-doubt and self-creation or the creation of other selves, the recurring story of plight, refuge, and, well, welcoming. All bound by the discussion of time and people being present in time.
Of course, without having read the new book this is just what I got from today's reading, but I am super excited. Ali Smith is one of the smartest, kindest, most sensitive and most intelligible writers I have read. She's also one of the funniest. The fun side, of course came out at today's reading, too, as the reading and interview was guided by her bestie Jackie Kay. For those not familiar with Jackie Kay, she is the current Makar (Scottish National Poet), and is an awesome writer in her own right. Check her out!
I am also super excited still that there was a book signing after the reading. I must admit I had a bit of a lump in my throat when I got meet Ali, but the weirdest thing happened:
I had taken two books - my hardback first edition of Artful and a copy of Hotel World which I wanted to send to my friend. However, by coincidence - or fate? - my friend's name is the same as Ali's new novel, so when I asked if she could make this one out to someone called Autumn, she not only wrote a brilliant dedication but also gave me the cover page of the manuscript she read from earlier, so I can send it off together with my friend's copy of the book.
No need to add that I have been beside myself since.
"They ache like history: things long done with, that still reverberate as pain. When the ache is bad enough it keeps me from sleeping. Every night I yearn for sleep, I strive for it; yet it flutters on ahead of me like a sooty curtain."
The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize in 2000, but please don't hold it against the book, because, apparently, in 2000 the judges got it right.
I had long been intrigued by this book because of the cover - it looks very stylish - but I had no idea what the book would be about and almost expected this would be another one of Atwood's dystopian speculative fictions.
I was completely wrong. All my preconceptions were totally unwarranted. (Tho, there is a story within the story that is set on a different planet. And there is an alien. Well, in a manner of speaking.)
The Blind Assassin is a family saga set in Ontario and focuses on the lives of Iris and her sister Laura, beginning with one of the most hard-hitting paragraphs I have read recently:
"Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens."
From there on we get the story of the sisters told in flashbacks through Iris' memory. However, from each memory, we also get this sense that there is much more to the story, that Iris is teasing our patience.
"No: I shouldn’t have married anyone. That would have saved a lot of trouble."
Surprisingly, this slow reveal never gets boring. Atwood weaves in so many layers that each part remains interesting as its own story, but the big picture is only revealed at the end.
In the book, we have the story of a family dynasty, that is being threatened by new money. Then we have class struggle in the early 20th century. We have have a depiction of society and history of the 20th century. We have love. We have cruelty. We have fantasy and stark reality. We have style and ugliness, powerlessness and emancipation. We have submission and we have revenge.
What we don't really have in the book is hate. Having said that, I can't remember the last time I as a reader wanted to punch a character so much as I wanted to punch one in The Blind Assassin. So, even though there is not much hate in the book, there was at least one hateful character, and even though this character's fate is somewhat ambiguous, I am satisfied with my interpretation of it.
This is not the only element of mystery in this book but the one that made it hard for me to put the book down.
I'm sorry it is difficult to describe the plot, and I don't want to give anything away, but it really is not that often that a book fascinates me on so many levels.
And of course, there is Atwood's gorgeous writing.
"The school orchestra struck up with squeaks and flats, and we sang “O Canada!,” the words to which I can never remember because they keep changing them. Nowadays they do some of it in French, which once would have been unheard of. We sat down, having affirmed our collective pride in something we can’t pronounce."
I loved the way Atwood made the characters come to life. Each of them had their own quirks, their own edges - even the supporting characters - which made them feel very real.
On top of that, the main character, Iris, a sassy and cynical old lady, just did not put up with any nonsense. As funny as this sounds, Iris' comments also made me think about some of the issues she raises - even where she claims to dismiss them with snide remarks.
"I knew enough to know that the only thing expected of me was that I not disgrace myself. I could have been back again beside the podium, or at some interminable dinner, sitting next to Richard, keeping my mouth shut. If asked, which was seldom, I used to say that my hobby was gardening. A half-truth at best, though tedious enough to pass muster."
As you can see from the star rating, I absolutely loved this book. In fact, I would now count it as one of my favourites. Atwood has this brilliant ability to tell a gripping story and relate hard issues without being sanctimonious or crass. The book will keep me thinking for some time to come still.
"Some alert functionary caught my arm and slotted me back into my chair. Back into obscurity. Back into the long shadow cast by Laura. Out of harm’s way. But the old wound has split open, the invisible blood pours forth. Soon I’ll be emptied."
Karen leaned back in her chair, not liking the answer she came up with, but knowing there would be nothing better coming from the man opposite her. ‘You were a right bunch of fucking cowboys in the old days, weren’t you?’ There was no admiration in her tone.
I don't know what I expected but I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I gather from a lot of comments and other reviews that this is one of McDermid's weaker offerings but I actually really enjoyed the mix of interlinking stories, each of which had it's own element of suspense:
The search for a donor that is compatible with a sick child.
The disappearance of a man who seemingly one day walks out on his family in the midst of the 1984 miners' strikes.
The journalist in search of a story.
The business oligarch in search of his peace of mind.
And DI Karen Pirie searching for the solutions to all of these puzzles.
As mentioned before, I'm not keen on reading gory tales or scary thrillers, and I was pleasantly surprised that the suspense - and there are oodles of suspense in this - was built not on gory facts but on characters and atmosphere. The elements of forensic detail just helped piece the clues together and follow the investigation.
So, yes, my apprehension of reading this was totally unwarranted - and yes, it was all in my head. Just as well, because having read this one I look forward to reading more by McDermid. It's is not just her writing style that made me hungry for more but also the setting - Kingdom of Fife - and the historical snippets.