There but for the, Ali Smith

“Think how quiet a book is on a shelf, he said, just sitting there, unopened. Then think what happens when you open it.”

Rating: ★★★★

Primarily due to feeling quite awful about rating Girl Meets Boy so terribly, I thought I would review another of Smith’s books to show her writing in a different light because she is my favourite author and perhaps this time I will do her justice.

What I love so much about Smith’s writing is her blurring between boundaries. With the lack of speech marks, there’s often confusion between what is said and what is thought, and who is saying what. This sounds really confusing but its actually extremely clever in that it makes you think more in depth about the text. The title. There but for the what? There but for the grace of God go I? – A saying that essentially means you avoid the mistakes that others have made, yet understand them. Smith also wants us to view these four words as separate sections. There. But. For. The. Four different chapters of the novel.

Opening with a dinner party, Miles Garth takes himself upstairs and locks himself in one of the rooms, and doesn’t come out for months. The consequences of his actions are catalytic for the prose, and we see how he affects those around him. A character who is at first quite opaque, Miles Garth is shown to us through other characters, particularly Anna K. The novel is not entirely present, and we go back 20 years or so ago. It’s about communication, relationships. How you can lose contact so quickly with someone who meant so much to you before. There isn’t much plot. We are missing the last word of this sentence; for the what? More importantly – WHY? Why did Miles Garth lock himself in the guest room during this dinner party? Why does he eventually leave the room? The novel poses a lot of questions that are left unanswered, this lack of core in this story is what the prose evolves around. Miles is merely the connection between the four parts of the story. He has a relationship with all four of these people, and thus he is more of a pivotal point within the novel rather than the protagonist.

I find it incredibly difficult to know what to write or what to think about Ali Smith’s work. All I know, is that I loved this novel. It is hard to review because I’ve nothing to compare it to, and not a real plot to consider it a real story but rather a mixture of narratives and timelines, that have, at one point in time, crossed over. Her prose, as always, is lyrical and beautifully put. Such indulgent language is intellectual and filled with wordplay. It is a rewarding read and although at times confusing, I highly recommend.

Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith

Rating: ★★

“Like that poem I knew, about how you sit and read your way through a book then close the book and put it on the shelf, and maybe, life being so short, you’ll die before you ever open that book again and its pages, the single pages, shut in the book on the shelf, will maybe never see light again…”

Sadly I was disappointed with this book. As you can see from the image, I have quite an affection for the writings of Ali Smith, and my blog title is inspired by Artful. Girl Meets Boy, however, didn’t seem to meet the standards of those I had read previously and somewhat lacked in the enticement that first drew me to Ali Smith, with my first novel being How to Be Both. I finished it after a couple of hours throughout the day; it’s a short novel with large print.

The novel take its foundation from the myth of Iphis in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and is essentially a postmodern retelling. The main themes are around gender and sexuality; taking an old story and placing it in the modern age. With a political and feminist agenda, this sometimes feels as though it gets in the way of the narrative. Full of interesting characters and what seems like could-be plots, the book feels as though it has been cut short, and perhaps should have been more extended.

The prose, as usual, was lyrical. Smith’s lack of speech marks gives her writing a stream-of-consciousness feel, and makes the reader pay more attention. Maybe because I was so hyped about Smith’s previous novels was the reason I didn’t feel so strongly about this one. The lack of plot made the book seem more like political agenda, which could have been more at home in an essay rather than a narrative.

Girl Meets Boy was whimsical, short, and sweet, and there’s not much else to say. While it didn’t make my top 5 Ali Smith books, it still managed to hold my attention, so I suppose that says something.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy

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“I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.”

Rating:  ★★★

I bought this book on a whim when I was browsing the Waterstones ‘new releases’ last summer, yet it became a sort of ‘meant to be’ decision that tied in with fate. I began the novel last summer in a rented car, driving down the southern coast of Spain alongside my two loud sisters and underneath the scorching sun. Coincidentally, this was where the book was set. Andalusia is a beautiful region of the country and to be able to visit the places while immersed in the prose was a kind of surreal experience, making the narrative feel extremely personal and real. Think white-washed buildings, deep blue skies and seas – the romantic scenery is harmonic and gives an atmosphere of serenity.

The novel depicts young woman Sophia, her mother, and a lot of Medusa jellyfish. Sophia has halted her Anthropology doctoral thesis to look after her sick, hypochondriac mother, with a mysterious illness and their last resort is to visit a specialist doctor in Spain. There’s a relaxed energy to the novel; Sophia spends much of her time waiting for her mother’s illness to be discovered. She is essentially free in her current position, yet feels trapped by her mother’s illness. Hot Milk seems a particularly relevant title, referencing the femininity which is so central to the text. Hot milk signifies the bond between mother and daughter, and perhaps the more sensual aspect of the female breast. There are several androgynous aspects to the character of Sophia, and we see her attracted to both a young male and female.

The story is dreamy, drifting from reality to the imaginary – Sophia often questions what is real and what is not, while the reader feels so vividly the breeze of the ocean and the smell of the sand. Sophia has lost focus in her life, and Spain becomes a sort of ‘in-between,’ serving as a kind of disconnected point in reality and out of sync with the world. The novel perhaps serves more as a journey, for a meaning of consciousness. Sophia wants to find her place, and a reason for her life. The prose is fresh, and the stream of consciousness aspect works well with a narrative that focuses primarily on the inner world of the protagonist.

The novel is bizarre and hypnotic, yet fluffy at times – there is a lack of plot to bite into. I feel there was perhaps a deeper meaning that I might have missed; I just wish I could have connected to it more than I had.

 

Also, I don’t know whether anyone would be interested but I am considering featuring a few posts on my journals and how I approach the art. If you like the idea please hit me up!

Blue Nights, Joan Didion

“I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost.
What is lost is already in the wall.
What is lost is already behind the locked doors.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.”

Rating: ★★★★

Over Easter I had the pleasure of reading my first Joan Didion novel. Blue Nights was written as an ode to Didion’s daughter, Quintana. Not quite sure was I was expecting, I delved into a prose that seemed comforting and familiar; a lyrical, subtly poetic verse that transfers you directly into Didion’s world. Perhaps it was the easily readable text that enabled her words to imprint into my mind, loitering for days later, these sentences that appeared so relevant to me.

In Blue Nights, most notable is Didion’s stylistic methods which pose questions to the reader and create a tighter bond and deeper connection between the reader and writer. In some ways, the book seems too private for publishing. I felt invasive when reading about her daughter’s hospitalisation, and personal experiences dealing with age, sickness, and death. But ultimately, she talks about the truths that are rarely spoken about, which come about in an invasive manner. There is a fluidity from abstract and concrete; universal questions are put in the midst of everyday scenarios much like the thoughts come into our heads.

The flexibility of narrative, expanding from intellectual thought to internal processing of her struggles much reflects a train of thought, or our subconsciousness. The universality of the book, while Didion sometimes appears strangely disconnected to the prose, creates an elusive outlook into her life. Profound is the use of the colour blue, which has so many different meanings. Blue can be dark, it can be grieving, and death. It can have such bright qualities, with melancholic undertones.

I wasn’t quite sure what I would get out of this book. I did not realise how biographical it was, and often this is a style of writing that I am not fond of. Yet, I came away with this passion for Joan Didion. I felt as if I had seen into her life on a personal level, a feeling which is usually absent between the author themselves, and the reader. While realistically, I cannot relate to Didion’s lifestyle or circumstances put forward in this novel, I felt so deeply connected to her. There is definitely a self-medicating aspect to the prose as she overcomes death and loss, and the reader feels a sense of healing whilst reading it.

(I apologise for the hiatus. I’m currently in the middle of exam period, and should solely be focusing on them but I haven’t stopped thinking about this book since I’ve read it.)

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Eimear McBride

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is something else. Taking on an internal narrative of the protagonist, we live through a young female narrator whom we never learn her name. Set in Ireland around the 1980’s, we are placed directly into the mind of the narrator through the stream of consciousness style of text. The title couldn’t be more perfect.

The young narrator is living in a kind of turmoil that reflects 1980’s Ireland. With themes of incest, rape and death. The use of such halting prose really strikes a chord with the reader, and you feel as though you are experience these events with her. The book is unconventional and a demanding read but definitely worth the struggle. The majority of the novel makes you experience things you would rather not know about, such as sexual abuse. And yet you want to read on because the prose is so addictive.

The novel itself seems very half formed. It takes a while to get used to the style of narrative which doesn’t flow like you wish it would, and the fluidity of text is very different to those of other authors. Yet there is a strange process that happens as you get further into the book, where you don’t notice your brain trying to figure out the rhythm anymore. The words flow into each other, paragraphs become like tidal waves and there’s a sense of bliss. Yet the events that take place quickly pull you under the current. The raw and broken sentence structure reflects the brokenness of the characters. With a mum struggling mental illnesses, a brother with a childhood brain tumour and a perverted Uncle, there is not much in the book that gives you a forgiving sense of hope or relief. Such trauma is brought on to the reader, with an evocative sympathy toward the narrator. We only see her side of the story, as we are in her mind, which is why the book is all the more traumatic. It is strangely relatable when you realise that the way McBride writes is a direct reflection of how we do think; disjointed, jumbled, lucid.

Originally, I wasn’t going to give this book five stars because a lot of the time I felt uncomfortable reading it. But the novel wasn’t intended for comfort; McBride presents this narrative in the precise way she wanted it; thought-provoking whilst deliberately disturbing. This is a book that leaves you breathless. She wanted to shock her readers.