Tag Archives: Ali Smith

#BookReview ‘Companion Piece’ by Ali Smith #SeasonalQuartet

Companion Piece by Ali Smith is about truth, the telling of stories, real stories, fake stories, fairy stories, perceived truth and real truth, and how language and data can be used and abused. Smith tackles some of the biggest issues facing society today, not so much providing answers but making us ask questions about life and the modern concept of ‘truth.’ A ‘companion’ novella to Smith’s lockdown-themed Seasonal Quartet, Companion Piece sings from the beginning. Ali SmithTwining together present and past stories, two motifs run throughout. ‘Curfew,’ the idea of restriction of physical movement, on access and egress, the feeling of being constrained and the invasion of our space. And ‘curlew’, the freedom of nature, the bird’s odd-shaped bill, a reminder that there is room in nature for things that don’t quite fit the norm, the ever presence of wildlife whatever happens in the human world, the familiar pattern of a bird’s day, of nature’s life cycle and therefore also of ours.
Artist Sandy is struggling during lockdown to distance-visit her sick father who is in hospital. She must stay isolated and free of the virus so she doesn’t prejudice his health and is accompanied only by Shep, her father’s dog. Into this closed world comes Martina, an acquaintance from university many decades since, who telephones with an odd tale concerning an incident at border control when she recently returned to the UK with the Boothby lock (a medieval artefact for which Martina is responsible). Held in an immigration detention room, she hears (or imagine she hears) a mysterious message – ‘Curlew or curfew.’ Martina wants Sandy’s advice to decipher the message, as Sandy is good at words. Sandy, who barely remembers Martina, tries to help while simultaneously trying to end the call. There are flashbacks to their university days, to Sandy’s childhood.
Then Sandy’s peaceful isolation is shattered by the arrival on her doorstep of Martina’s twin daughters, Lea and Eden, whose speech is littered with text-speak abbreviations. They dismiss Sandy’s concerns about covid distancing and accuse her of upsetting their mother who is acting strangely and is changing information about historical artefacts in the digital database at work.
The second story (whether it is told by Sandy is unclear, like many things in this book) set in another pandemic, this time the Black Death. An unnamed young girl, a blacksmith’s apprentice, is lying in a ditch after being attacked by men. There she meets a curlew chick, an ungainly beautiful bird she begins to care for. As people around her die of plague, she remembers the stories told to her by the blacksmith Ann Shaklock and these help her to survive.
Any novel by such an experimental writer as Smith needs to be read with a loosening of expectations, acceptance of the abandonment of normal commercial fiction norms. Passages are beautifully written but incomprehensible, others are simple and sweet, some made me laugh out loud. Punctuation, speech marks, forget about them all and sink into the story of Sandy the artist who paints words layered on top of words.
Don’t expect answers at the end. As Sandy says, ‘A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.’ It is a plea for us all to ask more questions, to not simply believe what we are told but to analyse and strip back stories in order to separate fact from fiction, fake news from truth.

Click the title to read my reviews of other books by Ali Smith:-
AUTUMN #1SeasonalQuartet
WINTER #2SeasonalQuartet
SPRING #3SeasonalQuartet
SUMMER #4SeasonalQuartet

If you like this, try:-
‘In the Midst of Winter’ by Isabel Allende
‘Blow Your House Down’ by Pat Barker
New Boy’ by Tracy Chevalier

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
COMPANION PIECE by Ali Smith #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5PB via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Summer’ by Ali Smith #SeasonalQuartet #literary

And so Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet comes full circle with Summer. What a journey these four books have been – experimental fiction at its best written in the moment at a time of political and social upheaval. Challenging, sometimes grating, often uplifting, so many of the loose threads left dangling in the first three books are reconnected in this finale. Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a challenging author to read. You get comfortable with one story and a couple of characters who she then abandons to tell you about someone else who seems completely disconnected. At times there are passages which seem to belong to no character, where the authorial voice shows through. It can feel as if the manuscripts for two or three novels have been thrown in the air and landed randomly on your Kindle. But then, as you come close to the end of this fourth book, all the disparate stories start to connect. Read Summer, the last in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, when your brain is in full gear otherwise you will miss so much.

The story starts in Brighton with Sacha and Robert Greenlaw, teenage siblings, precocious, curious, competitive, committed and awkward. Following a trick Robert plays on his sister, two strangers visit the home where they live with their mum Grace. The strangers, Charlotte and Arthur, are the first characters from previous books to reappear. And so begins a journey to Norfolk, inspired by Einstein, motivated by a promise, towards answers, towards mystery, no one seems to really know.

Smith says summer is ‘heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without darkness.’ Smith’s tales always feature darkness and here it is the wartime stories of Daniel Gluck and his father interned on the Isle of Man and of Daniel’s sister in France. How, I wondered as I read, will Smith connect the Greenlaws, Charlotte, Arthur and the Glucks? That is what kept me reading, to discover the meaning of summer in this story and to these particular characters. Smith says ‘summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something.’ There is so much depth in her exploration of theme – paralleling The Winter’s Tale, for example, and her own summer tale via the remembered summer of Grace when a young Shakespearean actress – more than I can explain here. You have to read it for yourself.

I do wish for old-fashioned punctuation, speech marks and clearly delineated changes of voice, the lack of which interrupts the flow of my reading and takes me away from the story – surely that can’t be the conscious objective of any author.

I will re-read this quartet back-to-back, without pause, hoping to gain more understanding and nuance. Individually, the novels are challenging and at times mystifying. Collectively, they become something else entirely. I suspect in years to come I will see a different interpretation.

Read my reviews of Autumn, Winter, Spring and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

If you like this, try:-
The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes
Amnesia’ by Peter Carey
The Testimony of Taliesin Jones’ by Rhidian Brook

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
SUMMER by Ali Smith #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4Qi via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Spring’ by Ali Smith #SeasonalQuartet #literary

Spring is the third in the Seasons quartet by Ali Smith and the most experimental of the books so far. Set in today’s disorientating, chaotic times, Spring is at times both disorientating and chaotic. The most political of the three, it felt at times like the author was shouting. It left me feeling rather flat, which I didn’t expect as I am an Ali Smith fan. Ali Smith

The book is rather difficult to summarize, partly because so soon after reading it the story disappeared from my mind. Two story strands start off independently, inevitably merging and impacting on each other. In between are passages of social media language, phrases listed, nasty, full of bile and hatred; I can imagine Smith trawling Twitter, pencil in hand, making notes.

Richard Lease, a film producer, is contracted to make a film about Katharine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, but is struggling with the script. He holds imaginary conversations with his – professional, and sometime romantic – partner Paddy who died recently. Richard also holds conversations with an imaginary daughter. Both women test him with awkward questions about his behaviour.

Brittany is an officer at an SA4A immigrant detention centre, a predictable, challenging job in a depressing place. And then she meets Florence, a kind of wonder child. Florence is 12 years old. She achieves mythical status, of a kind with Greta Thunberg, by persuading the centre director to steam clean all the toilets. No one knows where she came from; is she a detainee, did she blag her way into the building? Brit and Florence go on a road trip to Scotland where they meet Richard Lease and Alda, driver of a coffee van, possibly member of an underground movement to rescue detainees from immigrant detention centres, possibly Florence’s mother. These four key characters meet in Edinburgh and agree to go to Culloden.

I was left feeling that Smith’s political message would be stronger if it wasn’t so confusing. She vents her anger and the words on the page read as if they poured from her mind without sub-editing. This interrupts the flow of Richard and Brittany’s stories, taking my mind off the page and away from the book. I didn’t feel close to any of the characters and consequently didn’t care about them.

Ali Smith is one of the freshest, experimental voices we have today; reading one of her novels is not an easy read for the beach, they need concentration. So I will re-read Spring and hope for a smoother read. I await Summer, wondering if it will bring enlightenment on Spring’s storyline but not expecting it. To date, each novel is completely independent of each other. The only context for calling it a quartet are the titles, the seasonal themes. It is a difficult thing Smith is doing with this quartet; writing about a country in the process of cataclysmic political change – the anger, the depression, the fear – and writing quickly without the usual gap of years between writing and publication which allow a book to mellow. For me, Spring does not quite work. But I do love the Hockney cover art.

Read my reviews of Autumn, Winter and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

If you like this, try:-
A Sudden Light’ by Garth Stein
A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley
All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
SPRING by Ali Smith #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-44W via @SandraDanby