New discoveries: Ali Smith

by Chris Bertram on January 2, 2019

The most welcome change in our local area in the last few months is that we now have a local bookshop, Storysmith Books, and no longer have to traipse into town to Waterstones or Foyles or give our money to Jeff Bezos. I’ve always loved hanging around in bookshops (and record shops) since I was teenager, browsing, discovering new things, and that has become so much harder to do since the internet started killing the high street.

A couple of weeks before Christmas I was browsing in Storysmith, not very sure of what I wanted, and came across the first couple of volume’s of Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasons quartet Autumn and Winter. When things are in a sequence it is helpful to know what’s first, so I had to check that I wasn’t supposed to start with Spring or Summer (and indeed they’re still being written). Actually, though Autumn is first, the novels are quite independent (so far) and I could have read them in either order. Both Autumn and Winter are set in post-referendum Britain and the plots unfold against its division and dysfunctionality, but neither is didactically political. Each has at its centre a disruptive character who serves as a kind of moral and aesthetic exemplar: in Autumn it is Daniel Gluck, dying in a care-home at the age of 101 and the history of his friendship from her childhood with Elisabeth Demand a precariously employed young art historian, and his role in awakening her aesthetic sensibilty (and more broadly sensibility to life, nature). The Profumo Affair and the almost-forgotten British pop artist from the sixties, Pauline Boty, thread through the novel. In Winter, the action is centred around Christmas, a nature-blogger called Art who is a bit of a fraud and his trip home to see his entrepreneurial Leaver mother. Here the key relationship is between mother and her estranged sister (formerly of Greenham Common) and the disrupter is a young woman, Lux, hired by Art to impersonate the girlfriend who just dumped him. Both are wonderful books, and reminders that even against grey political skies, we can catch glimpses of beauty and spirit.

Having consumed these, and facing a wait till March for the next installment, I went looking for earlier work and finished The Accidental, yesterday, in which a middle-class English family, spending the summer in Norfolk, find their sense of themselves transformed by a mysterious visitor, Amber, who challenges each of them with a Nietzschean playfulness that is by turns benign and malevolent. It is a long time since I was twelve, but Smith’s imagining of the inner monologues of Astrid, the daughter and her elder brother Magnus is transporting. The theme: a family that is unhappy in its own way disturbed and changed by a chance encounter is very Anne Tylerish. But whilst Tyler’s prose is unshowy, Smith plays with language the whole time, punning, rhyming, even having characters think in sonnet form at one point. And she does this lightly and unpretentiously so that you are delighted rather than irritated. (The lightness and playfulness coupled with deadly seriousness about life and history also reminded me a lot of Pauline Erpenbeck.)

I can see that reading more Smith will take up quite a lot of the year to come.



Ingrid 01.02.19 at 7:15 pm

Recently, a children’s toys shop closed down in my city. I asked the owner – she confirmed that they have seen sales going down and down in the same period that internet sales have gone up and up.

I was much more cavalier about buying books via Amazon or the main Dutch internet site that sells book and any other stuff you need, until I started to realise how our internet-buying-habits changes our cities. There is much more to physical bookshops than the mere possibility to buy a particular book, and I know of more and more people who, for that reason, are making the extra effort to buy books in actual bookshops, rather than online. Happy to hear that there is not-merely-non-bad but actually-good news on that front, Chris, with new bookshops opening!


JanieM 01.03.19 at 12:44 am

A friend introduced me to Ali Smith a few years ago via How to be Both. I’m working my slowly through her other stuff, but skipped right over to Autumn and Winter when they came out.

I’m in awe of her writing, especially the inexhaustible whimsy and complexity of her language coupled with the seriousness that underlies it, which you’ve characterized so aptly. Glad you’re giving her a mention.


david 01.03.19 at 1:26 am

There but for the and How to be both are two of my favorite ever books but they are all pretty great.


Matt 01.03.19 at 11:06 am

Is the book shop primarily (or only?) devoted to new books? The web page (which looks very nice) makes it seem like that, but it’s just a huge up-hill battle, I think, for general purpose new book shops to compete with bigger companies. (And, often, when they were more common, they were bad. One reason why Barns and Noble and Borders were able to be so successful for quite a while in the US is that so many places only had awful book stores before them.) I hope the owners will make it work, but it seems like it will be difficult. Even things like hosting readings, providing a community meeting place, and so on do only so much if people don’t actually buy books, but it’s very hard for small local places to have the selection of bigger ones.


Andy 01.04.19 at 9:45 am

4: my favorite stores, & perhaps those with the best prospects, are secondhand-book stores that carry some new books as well. For instance, Blue Cypress Books in New Orleans.

I appreciate the main post, as I picked up a copy of Autumn but needed some encouragement to dive in.

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