Posts Tagged ‘ali smith’

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

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The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

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We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

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This is the first of my reviews of this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness’ More Than This I read back in August – see here for my review – six months before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest, it will take some beating!

Anyway, this is my first knowing CILIP Carnegie read. 

And I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t think it’s a winner but a great read. I mean, fairytales, wolves, witches, werepeople, cross dressing. And a slightly underused hen. What’s not to like? 

   Fairytales and mythology have continued to inspire writers and are enjoying a revival with Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Helene Wecker, Ali Smith, Ali Shaw, Erin Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Disney – who would watch Frozen when you could read The Girl With Glass Feet? So, in this environment, expectations are high for Tinder. Heady company, Ms Gardner!

And the opening lines do not disappoint. 

Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking. He wore upon his skull a withered crown of white bone twisted with green hawthorn. His skeleton was shrouded with a tattered cloak of gold and, in his wake, stood the ghosts of my comrades newly plucked, half-lived, from life. Many I knew by name. 

  Based on the first fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson’s wrote, The Tinderbox, Tinder‘s narrator is Otto Hundebiss, a common soldier drafted into the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Following the slaughter of his compatriots, Otto drifts into a fairytale world of hidden castles, unruly princesses and fearsome werewolves. Following the structure of the original take, Otto has to face three trials in order to retrieve a mysterious tinderbox, keeping the riches he finds there. Instead of returning it to its owner, he keeps the tinderbox, causing her to be killed. In a nearby town, he discovers that the tinderbox grants him the power to summon monstrous werewolves. 

The language of the novel maintains the sparseness and occasional lyricism of the classic fairytale. There’s not the depth of character or psychology you might expect: Otto never becomes more than a cipher for the traumatised child soldier, the common man struggling against social inequalities, or sexual maturing. He doesn’t work as a character, even though Gardner does toss us flashbacks to the horrors that Otto has experienced. But that’s all okay because this is, at the end of the day, a fairy tale. 

The illustrations in the book by David Roberts are also worth a mention: they are gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. Stylised and unreal but gorgeous. 

   

 The novel certainly holds the imagination with the quality of an hallucination or a dream and a similar logic. Gardner has said that the novel was inspired by the experiences of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and of child soldiers in Rwanda as well as the Thirty Years War. For me, these real world parallels were mere echoes – although parents may want to exercise caution as the fate of Otto’s sister becomes clear as well as the fate of the daughter of a neighbouring farm. It is perhaps here that the more modern conflicts and our outrage at the use of rape as a weapon of war become most patent. 

I find with this blog that some books can be reviewed almost from the moment you finish them. Others, I need time to … ruminate. To cogitate. To digest. To reflect on.

This book, Ali Smith’s Man Booker Shortlisted How To Be Both, definitely falls into that latter category. It is beautiful. It is thoughtful. It is clever, smart and profound. Funny, touching and sad.

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The novel is in two parts and one quirk of the publishing is that some copies commence with one story; others start with the second. I actually had this as both an e-book which began with the story of Francesco del Cossa, a renaissance painter. Simultaneously, my audiobook version started with the story of Georgia, a contemporary teenage girl. I literally had both!

The two characters are connected in a dazzling array of parallels between their stories, their lives, their experiences. Their stories don’t simply parallel each other’s: they intertwine and weave and writhe around and through each other.

Let’s consider the title: what boths are we being shown how to be?

Certainly, this novel clearly explores our capacity to be both male and female. It took me a little while to realise that Francesco was a girl and pretty much as soon as I did she bound her chest and dressed as a man to be accepted as an artist. George has been given a deliberately ambiguous name and her friendship with the equally ambiguously named ‘H’ starts to explore her sexuality. Neither George, nor her wonderfully created mother, realise that Francesco is female. This exploration of gender and sexuality was no surprise: having read her Girl Meets Boy, itself based on Ovid’s account of Iphys in his Metamorphoses, some years ago now.

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We are also asked to be both in the past and present, both alive and dead: Francesco’s life in Renaissance Italy is gorgeously captured for us and made alive; she is brought to the present by George’s interest in her art; Smith grounds George in our present with her text messages, iPad and technology; and George keeps her mother alive by reliving her memories and creating rituals. Ironically, the dead characters (Francesco and George’s mother) almost felt the most alive. This issue of past and present is also addressed at a grammatical level as George constantly reminds herself of the appropriate tense to use to discuss her mother.

We also explore the dichotomies between the real and the painted – and by extension the unreal; the painter and the painting; the art and the viewer; the observer and the observed. As I was reading, and I don’t know whether this is true of any other reader, I assumed that Francesco del Cossa was an invention and only when idly googling did I discover that she was real, that the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos exist in Ferrara, which is itself a city I am familiar with through literature and the staple GCSE poem My Last Duchess by Browning. A poem which is itself based on an historical scandal – and which accuses the Duke, quite wrongly of having his first wife killed. Misrepresentation, history, fiction, reality, creativity all twining around each other. What actually is the real? And does it really matter?

Smith’s language throughout was gorgeous: sparse and even spare at times, realistic and painful at others, and warm elsewhere. There are philosophical and political stances explored in the novel but at no time does it detract from the humanity created within its pages.

Within the novel, George’s mother refers to Francesco’s art as

so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I’ve never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.
She turns to George.
It’s a bit like you, she says.

That formulation seems a perfect description of this novel itself: friendly, warm, generous, sardonic.

As a footnote, the novel I’ve moved onto now is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which also revolves around art, another dead mother and a grieving child. That novel seems to luxuriate in its own language and descriptions – all of which is fine! – but a marked contrast to Smith!

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There are some books that revel in plot, action and events.

Other books – perhaps quieter books – are content to develop narrative: characters and settings, relationships and language.

This book by Ali Shaw is very clearly and very effectively one of the latter: little really happens, but so much is created.

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Lets take the setting initially. The book is set on the fictional island of St. Hauda’s Land, somehow far Scottish or Norweigan in flavour. It is the perfect setting for this novel of transformation as the sea and the land are constantly changing and metamorphosing: the very fabric of the island is being eaten away by the sea. Within the island are towns, forests and bogs all of which contribute their distinctive character to the novel.

Next, the characters: the delightful Ida Macleod and the less appealing Midas Crook. Midas… named for the King whose touch transformed everything to gold; and Ida who is transforming from the feet up into glass. Yes, glass.

Don’t expect Shaw to give you any explanation. Explanations are not offered by Shaw. No more for this transformation than for the creature whose glance can turn everything it sees white or the moth-winged cattle that also inhabit this island. Ida is turning into glass. Those characters who seek explanations and cures are the least likeable and the closest Shaw gets to villainy.

And that tranformation is physically traumatic, genuinely terrifying but visually stunning.

“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease betweent he joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep, wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places where the transformation was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there, a fine blonde hair.”

It is no surprise that the writing is so visual: the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of Midas who is cripplingly shy and / or capable of being located somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder. He is a photographer. The simple image of his camera (disappointingly digital) as the barrier and (literally) lense through which he sees the world but also distances himself from the world is a beautiful one – speaking as someone who has experience of ASD. Again, as a photographer, he is allied with the static and the captured moment in a story about fluidity and transformation; Ida is transforming into a solid just as his photographs capture movement and still it. Don’t expect value judgements in the book – Smith does not lecture you to embrace change or counsel you to celebrate the static – but the play between the still and the mobile, between static and transformation is beautiful and magical.

The ending of the novel approached with a terrible sense of inevitability and was beautiful, heart wrenching and even managed to wring a tear from this cynical teacher.

A fantastic, fantastical fairy tale of a book!