SO, we have the younger genius brother from hell, the father’s mistress who is struck dumb. This is the fourth in the quartet (I presume) and like the other volumes the opening salvo takes no prisoners. “As in, so what?” Smith’s present tense is catastrophe, get over it.
The cover illustration from the David Hockney series of changing seasons reinforce the point that this is writing firstly about time. As in Time. And memory. A record for the future.
It is a brave tradition. Hamish Hamilton first published writers such as Chandler, Capote, Salinger in Britain, then in translation Camus, Sartre, Simenon. A sparkling intellectual heritage is upheld.
Smith toys with the story telling dropping through different episodes of the family saga stretching back beyond world war two. But she plays free and easy with the narrative so, she said, may mean Grace said, may mean mother said…as her characters assume their different roles and perspectives…in Grace’s case as a once aspiring actress made famous by a TV advert…stay awake, children.
Superficially it is an obituary to the Brexit fracture in history, although to label her a Brexit author/protester as the Sunday Times suggested in a pretty awful spoiling review rather dismisses her grander ideas of compassionate internationalism, her perspective through society and her stiletto humour. I was thinking how would a project like this have been for the 1960s or 1930s or even earlier – which all get a mention although here we are grounded in what we know, the now, but what is that? What was it then? And if the characters veer on the side of dotty they are still likeably (mostly) of their time, our time.
Thoughts and memories move between generations: “So here’s another fragment of moving image from across time”.
And so there is a connection being Einstein, being brother and evangelical sister, of truths erased, of messages not delivered, of old violins in the attic, of art that passes, of memories and their value…of distorted realities. And Smith’s bubbling playfulness with language and surreal imagery. It is a dance of ideas. Summer is also an old term for the large beam that holds up a ceiling.
Here the literary references are to Winter’s Tale where in Winter it was to Cymbeline, the social conscience returns to the detention centres of Spring, we meet Charlotte and Art again, in Cornwall again, and a finale that is quite unexpectedly soft and touching.
What to make of the whole quartet? Any one can stand alone because in that sense it is their themes and styles that connect them not the story. Their time. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s first novel Blue Eyes which is also divided by seasons but it is not as joined up or as focused as that, its interests and enthusiasm are more varied and abstract notions about writing, art, here also film and popular culture. There is life in old causes like Greenham Common. And the despair of being locked up by real and imaginary predators, which extend painfully in this volume as far as the old people’s home.
Smith is a bit of an old hippy, but no harm in being reminded of days when young people did wish each other peace and love. I have a sense that I have been invited into some front parlor with floral wall paper and a large comfortable armchair and offered a cup of tea. So, Ali, tell me how it was, for you…what’s really troubling you?