Autumn by Ali Smith

I have finally read a novel by Ali Smith and enjoyed it, though it is distracting to explain why with so many exuberant accolades and comments all over it saying how brilliant it is, I wish I could just read without the expectation this over abundance of blurbs brings. She is clearly the darling of British literary media and publishing, however all the superlatives are a little over the top in my opinion.

Autumn is the first in a series of books she has said she will write, named after the seasons. Winter has just come out and I’ve read some good reviews that suggest it is as good as, and some say even better than Autumn.

Autumn moves back and forth in time and is mostly narrated through the relationship of Elisabeth and her mother’s neighbour Daniel. For her homework, Elisabeth should interview a neighbour and ask certain questions, her mother doesn’t approve and suggests she makes it up. She does. A few days later the mother invites the neighbour to read what her daughter had written. This moment signals the beginning of what will become a special relationship between Daniel, a foreign octogenarian and the teenage Elisabeth.

As the novel opens Daniel appears to be hallucinating and while doing so philosophises about death. Elisabeth is 32 and a junior lecturer in London on a zero hours contract.  She is visiting Daniel Gluck in a home. Every aspect of life is in its Autumn.

In the background the country is changing, attitudes are changing, apathy is being replaced by protest. Seasons change as they always do, legacy’s are lost and forgotten, occasionally revived, survive.

“It’s all right to forget, you know” he said. “It’s good to. In fact, we have to forget things sometimes. Forgetting it is important.  We do it on purpose. It means we get a bit of a rest. Are you listening? We have to forget. Or we’d never sleep, ever again.”

The narrative skips back to her childhood and then forward twenty years to Daniel in the care facility. He is now 101 years old, Elisabeth visits him and reads to him, he is always asleep, but she talks to him anyway and remembers the things they used to talk about when she was young.

She hasn’t visited her mother for years, but now while she visits Daniel, she spends time with her mother, they are related but alien to each other. They don’t try to make each other understand. Something in Daniel nourishes Elisabeth and helps her to grow, to question, and eventually to understand.

Today he looks like a Roman senator, his sleeping head noble, his eyes shut and blank as a statue, his eyebrows mere moments of frost.

It is a privilege to watch someone sleep, Elizabeth tells herself. It is a privilege to be able to witness someone both here and not here. To be included in someone’s absence, it is an honour, and it asks quiet. It asks respect.

No. It is awful.

It is fucking awful.

It is awful to be on the literal other side of his eyes.

“Mr Gluck,” she says.

Pauline Boty by Lewis Morley, Sept 1963

Daniel describes images to Elisabeth, which years later she recognises, a painting by the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, introducing an element of mystery and intrigue to do with an old scandal and the premature deaths of two young women. We’re not give much detail, and I’m assuming most of us will never have heard of Pauline Boty or Christine Keeler, women whose art and stories were quickly forgotten, denied even.

It’s a cryptic read that enters into subjects, into the lives of a small group of characters without providing all the detail, enough to entice the reader, to hint at the depth of a connection and leaves it before we can entirely understand, we too must imagine, join the dots, make of it what we will, catch the leaves before the fall, but not worry if we don’t, they’ll come around again next season.

 

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God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni MorrisonBride is young, in her twenties, but has learned early the importance of a word, a gesture, a look that can change people’s perception of you, as long as you stick to it, you become known for it, unforgettable, and that one thing can change your world.

God Help the Child is mostly told through the life experience of Bride, a name she chose for herself as she launched herself into a successful and glamorous career in the perfume/fashion world.

It is far from the memory of neglect and disapproval that was her constant companion throughout childhood, channeled through the eyes, words and gestures of a mother unable to move beyond the disappointment of the blue/black tone of her daughter’s skin.

‘I told her to call me “Sweetness” instead of “Mother” or “Mama”. It was safer. Being that black and having what I think are too-thick lips calling me “Mama” would confuse people. Besides, she has funny-coloured eyes, crow-black with a blue tint, something witchy about them too.’

Before her second interview for the job she covets, she consults a designer called Jeri, who convinces her to only ever wear white, accentuating both her new name and because of the effect it had on what he described as her licorice skin.

‘At first it was boring shopping for white-only clothes until I learned how many shades of white there were: ivory, oyster, alabaster, paper white, snow, cream, ecru, Champagne, ghost, bone.’

Bride waits in a prison parking lot for a convicted felon to emerge on the last day of their sentence. She comes with a gift and a different form of naivety than that she possessed when her testimony put this person away for 20 long years.

Her current boyfriend Booker has just left her, and now this. She excels in acquiring knowledge to help her scale the ladder of success, but there is a gaping hole within that pushes her to put all else aside and find answers to questions she can barely articulate to herself.

On a whim, she tries to track down the man who disappeared without a goodbye and after a car accident and injury, finds herself living with a couple and a girl in self-imposed poverty; a stark contrast to her lifestyle. As she pursues those unclear questions, strange but noticeable things begin to happen to her body, as if it is regressing towards childhood.

Each subsequent part tells of an encounter of someone she meets or has met previously and although their stories differ there is a common thread that ties them all and demonstrates in various ways the effect these childhood experiences have on a person subsequently, how they shape who we become, how we react to things, how they affect one’s perception.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The characters enthrall, each one introduced fleetingly, intriguing and hinting at the depths that their own stories have led them to become. Morrison makes us wait and slowly reveals those experiences for the select few deemed important to the narrative. It is perhaps through this hinting at and omission, that much is left to the reader to contemplate, but then Morrison isn’t known for having to spell it all out or writing sagas, and there is enough divulged to create a balance and equal contribution between the four parts of the novel.

It is a thought-provoking, evocative novel that deserves more than one reading, demonstrating the ease with which Toni Morrison and her narrative skill are able to skate into the 21st century, to pick up and explore the nuances of another of society’s dysfunctional aspects, that the things you do and say to children in their early years really matter and will impact their adult perceptions, actions and relationships. However, there are moments, that if grasped, can and do lead one out of that.

Brilliantly told, subtle and yet powerful, Morrison’s final words at the end of the book, reminded me of the closing words of Maya Angelou in an interview she gave to the BBC near the end of her life, after a lifetime of addressing issues that manifest throughout life, her final words too, speak of children.

“Exercise patience with yourself first, so you can forgive yourself for all the dumb things you do. Then exercise patience with your children.” Maya Angelou