Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy

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While I was reading Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, I kept playing this track by Antony and the Johnsons in my head:

 

Ali Smith’s contribution to the Canongate Myths Series is considered one of the highlights of the whole set and although I have only read four of them, I can definitely say that this one is a stunner.

Ali Smith takes the tale of Iphis and Ianthe and places it in a modern setting. A small summary of the myth: Iphis was born a girl but had to live like a boy and eventually fell in love with Ianthe. Ianthe understood that she could not marry a woman (remember this is ancient Greece and written by Ovid) so she asked the gods to change her into a boy, which they did.

Ali Smith take on the myth is the notions of gender. The story focuses on Anthea who falls in love with her schoolmate Robin (gender neutral name) to the dismay of her sister Imogen, who is finding it difficult to accept the fact that Anthea is a lesbian.

Imogen has her own problems as she is working for a bottled water company and she encounters sexism among her colleagues and harassment from her boss. Eventually she is put in a position that questions her ethics and makes her understand gender roles.

For its brief 160 pages, Girl Meets Boy stuffs in a lot of notions. Besides gender and sexism, there’s the environment, memory, eating disorders and media, with a gentle nod to Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. As always Ali Smith makes this so simple and manages to get a great story out of it.

Strangely enough Ali Smith’s myth treatment was written in 2007 and now it is quite fashionable to use big name authors modernise Shakespearean plays, mythology, (ok Angela Carter got Fairy Tales) or even classic tales. Can I say that Girl Meets Boy might have started the revival??

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Ali Smith – Artful

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Ali Smith has always managed to challenge the idea of what a novel is and Artful is no exception, even now as I sit here I am having trouble with describing the book due to the fact that I want to write a cohesive review.

Essentially the book is a four part criticism of art: The notion of time in art, how art can be edgy, the form of art and then a general overview. However this is Ali Smith and she’s going to take something like this into new dimensions.

The narrator has recently lost her husband and he appears as a ghost and she discovers his notes which focus on the aspects of art I have mentioned above. Not only that but the ghost also represents the aspect of art that is being discussed. As an example, when the form of art is being discussed, the ghost is becoming more lifelike.

Despite the informative value of the book, Ali Smith still manages to create a complete story with closure so it is a pleasure to read. There’s a dalliance with a psychologist, digressions on insects, Beyonce gets a mention and even lyrics to Greek pop songs which serve as a subliminal message. Oh and the title is a reference to the Artful Dodger as the ghost appears when the narrator is reading Oliver Twist but also artful means showing creative skill, which is what art is.

If I am making everything confusing, do  not worry. Ali Smith manages to pull everything together in the most effortless way possible. I also liked the fact that lots of elements from Artful were later used in Smith’s books that followed. There are ghosts in Winter, How to be Both also focused on the role of art, especially photography., Same with Autumn.

Anyway Artful is an essential book for an Ali Smith and is an example of her genius. The basis of Artful were four lectures but she manages to turn everything into a readable, yet brainy novel. There’s nothing like Artful and I doubt there ever will be.

Ali Smith – Other Stories and Other Stories

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Although I can say that I’m an Ali Smith fan, I just feel that her short stories do not do her any justice. In her novels, Smith is able to expand and develop her ideas but in the short story format she doesn’t come off as witty and the stories seem like good ideas that are brief and slightly forgettable.

That’s all I can say really. None of these stories really stuck with me but they weren’t bad either, just too brief for me to like them.

Ali Smith – Winter

Winter

You all know that this will be a glowing review due my Ali Smith bias.

Winter is the second part of of Smith’s seasonal quartet. As always she stuffs a lot of themes so actually reviewing her books are a bit difficult.

As the title states, the book takes place during wintertime; A season where things die. The setting of Winter (the book) is during the winter solstice and more specifically the Christmas season, which means that the days are dark. As of the book’s writing Britain is in it’s Brexit phase and Donald Trump has been elected, it is indeed a dark time. The remaining themes Smith explores in the novel also emphasise that there are dark days ahead. The opening three pages of Winter drive this point in an extreme way.

The main theme is family as the focuses on a rather disjointed family coming together for Christmas celebrations. There’s Sophie (meaning wisdom) her politically minded sister Iris, Arthur or Art ( as with Autumn art, as in painting, plays a role) who pays a Croatian refugee called Lux (light) to join him and pretend to be his girlfriend (bit of a Buffalo 66 situation there) as the Christmas season unfolds the family start to uncover secrets from the past which unites them and provides them the courage to face the future instead of hiding in their own insecurities.

As for other major themes Information Technology plays a role through various episodes throughout the novel. In one scene Sophie is trying to borrow money from a bank teller for the Christmas meal but she is directed to an ATM, which cannot cope with. Her son Art is an armchair nature blogger and seek outs copyright fringes as a day job. I think Smith is pointing out that technology is something to hide behind easily and create a shield for our real selves or even blocks out the human side of social interaction.

As with Autumn, Smith mirrors world events that happened in the past with current events, thus cementing that history does move in circles, or like the seasons, it moves in cycles. This is done through the character of Iris. In the 70’s she protested nuclear weapon manufacturing, which is a problem now with North Korea threatening to nuke the world. Iris’ father is a racist and cannot understand why Britain allows immigrants into its country , something which is still topical. Smith ties the 70’s and 10’s worldviews intelligently.

Autumn focused on the Artist Pauline Boty, while in Winther Barbara Hepworth and Ethel Walker are the featured artists. Hepworth’s paintings prove to be crucial to the plot development and also serves as a statement that art may not be dead in this dead time but exists in other forms.

The person who unites the family is Lux, the Croatian refugee who actually know about British history but does not understand cliches. s her name suggests she is the light, the one who makes the family make peace with each other and this theme of unification and strength for what the future holds is Smith at her most poignant. Indeed Winter is a pessimistic book but it is not a downer.

I am sure I have missed out other important themes. After all, one cannot read an Ali Smith once and expect to absorb everything. I mean I am still pondering the symbolism of the floating head (does it tie in with Hepworth’s rounded sculptures?) or the floating coastline (the destruction of land?) I don’t know but I will say that Winter is an angry (don’t worry there’s a good amount of funny set pieces and puns) book and while it provides an excellent companion to Autumn, I think it is the stronger book due to Smith’s openness on certain topics

Ali Smith – Autumn

Autumn

Am I biased? Personally Ali Smith can do no wrong. Her books combine fierce intelligence with playful elements: Art, feminism, politics. You name it, she squeezes it in and comes out with something coherent and fun to read.

Essentially Autumn is a Brexit novel. However this is Ali Smith so that main theme is entwined with the life of artist Pauline Boty, A girl’s platonic relationship with a old man and an auction show. Although the main message is that Brexit Britain has become a breeding ground for intolerant racist people who cling to the past there are other jabs – attitudes towards female artists, media, same sex couplings, world war – in which Smith tries to draw a parallel with contemporary Britain. It is absolutely dazzling.

One of Ali Smith’s talents is creating a seemingly banal scene and then stuffing it with so much meaning that the reader has to stop and reflect on that passage. This happened quite a few times to me – especially during the ‘Goldilocks’ segment of the book. As always there are laugh out loud moments which are serious as well. I’m referring to the main protagonist applying for her passport, which becomes a sort of running gag throughout the novel.

I can say so much more but really a paltry review like this cannot do Autumn any justice in the least. All I can say that this novel is a masterpiece AND it is the first part of a quartet of novels focusing on the seasons. I am excited!

Book 989 Ali Smith – The Accidental

Ali Smith is an author I’ve read about – and it always seems that the reviews either a) praise her b) condone her so I was quite pleased to find out that ‘The Accidental’ made the the 1001 list. I’m even more pleased at the fact that I am part of the former category as well. Yes, I’m now a fan.

The Smart family are dysfunctional. Astrid only views life through her handheld camera, her brother Magnus is suicidal, the half father, lecturer, Michael sleeps with his students and the mother, Eve is a best-selling author who superficial in all ways. Each chapter is about these protagonists and is told through their eyes.

That is until Amber walks into their life.

Slowly Amber changes each family member in a positive way but this is no cliched Benny and Joon story. Amber usually changes people by antagonising them (except for Magnus) and exposing their true selves. Towards the end Astrid is more aware of life, Magnus is filled with hope, Michael sees the emptiness of his life and Eve  begins to be more genuine. There’s also the subplot about the history of cinema, this is presumably Amber’s personal story.

On screen this looks like some soap opera but in Smith’s hands it is anything but. Her use of language is dazzling as puns and vivid imagery are lightly sprinkled on each page and her way of squeezing out philosophical thoughts and ideas as if they were throwaway is another masterful stroke. Most of all the character of the free thinking Amber is memorable creation and her thoughts and words, no matter how blunt and rough, leave an impression. It wouldn’t be right to say that she is a Holden Caufield clone but they both have the same type of world-vision.

The Accidental is one of those books that last in the memory for ages. Even as I type certain inflections and sentences are spinning round my head. Despite it’s artiness (one chapter is composed of poems) it is extremely accessible and Smith makes sure that the reader is not left in the dark as each individual chapter is closley linked with the last. I see The Accidental as a forerunner for the shape of novels to come. Something with a complicated facade and yet can be accepted by all.