Winter (2017) – Ali Smith
Everything Will Be All Right (2003) – Tessa Hadley
Clever Girl (2014) – Tessa Hadley
What She Ate (2017) – Laura Shapiro
This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home(2017) – Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, editors
My Mistake (2013) – Daniel Menaker
No, I did not spend the month of January lounging on the couch, reading by the fire. The essay collections What She Ate and This Is the Place were begun in December, and I didn’t get around to finishing them until into January. Two airplane flights in mid January gave me five to six hours with nothing to do but read. Don’t be envious (or possibly judgmental) about my knocking off six books. It probably won’t happen again.
I am going to focus on the three novels by two British authors. The best of the three is Winter by Ali Smith. I sheepishly admit that I had never heard of her until just this past October. While doing the tourist thing at the Notting Hill Book Shop in London, I saw the magic words “Man Booker Prize” on a paperback with a pretty cover picture of a country lane. So for completely superficial reasons I bought Autumn by Ali Smith – and it turned out to be an extraordinary novel. Since I didn’t read it in January, I’ll save it to talk about in a future month when I might be a little lax in my reading. But it was so good, I immediately started researching (that is to say, Googling) Ali Smith to see if she had written other books I could read. Turns out she is a Scottish writer who has been producing award-winning short story collections, plays and novels for twenty years! Autumn was the fourth(!)of her nine novels to get short-listed for the Booker. How had I missed this writer? (It also turns out that what I was calling a “pretty cover” was a photo of a David Hockney oil titled “Early November Tunnel.” The whole experience was a bit of a comeuppance.)
Putting aside my artistic cluelessness for now… When Autumn was published in 2016, Smith announced that it was the first of a quartet of novels she was working on. On January 17, I was walking around the Books & Books bookstore in Key West (where I was taking a writing workshop) and I spied Winter on a display table. I began reading it on the flight home. Winter is also a gem, and maybe more accessible than Autumn. The premise sounds like a British novel set piece: dysfunctional family members end up together at a rambling house in Cornwall for the Christmas holidays. But Smith moves around the pieces of this novel in a wholly original way. The elderly mother (Sophia), who lives in the house chats with a disembodied head that has appeared; the London-based neglectful son (Art) picks up a young woman from the street and pays her to impersonate his girlfriend who was to visit his mother with him but who has dumped him instead; the mother’s estranged sister (Iris), who has been an environmental activist dating back to the ’60’s, shows up (as does a busload of birders). Smith takes real delight in upending expectations, pushing limits of reality, and allowing her characters to emerge into fully rounded and cherished figures through dialogue and deeds – never telling you what you should be thinking when. She does all this through an extraordinary facility with language and a love of wordplay and comic scene-setting that is a joy to read.
Now on to Tessa Hadley. She writes what might be thought of as traditional, family-driven novels. Both of these books follow women living through the cultural changes in England from c. 1950 to c. 201O. Everything Will Be All Right follows four generations of women in the same family; Clever Girl follows one woman through the same time span. I confess that I inadvertently did the second book a disservice. Hadley wrote the books more than a decade apart, publishing four other novels in between. If I had had that ten-year break between them, I might have written, “Hadley returns to familiar themes.” Instead my reaction was, “This again?” I found myself just pushing along to get to the end. In addition, Meg Wolitzer, reviewing Clever Girl in the New York Times Book Review, wrote, “A story that doesn’t overreach…told in prose that isn’t ornate yet is startingly exact.” Damning with faint praise?
To shift gears, I did get a surprising history lesson by reading all three novels. In each, one of the main characters plays an active part in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Starting in 1981 and going until 2000, nineteen years, women chained themselves to fences, camped out, and marched at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest the British government’s decision to use it as a site for nuclear missiles. While the protest didn’t stop the government from going ahead with its plans (surprise), an article in the Guardian gives it credit for changing “the nature of protest,” with that kind of protest apparently having some success in recently saving a British village from fracking.
Once again I am astonished and abashed at my ignorance. I do not recall ever hearing about the Greenham Common protests, and I was 28 years old when it started and 47 when it ended. How did I miss this obviously seminal moment for the advancement of women in England that surely should have been spotlighted as a primary example of “I am woman, hear me roar”?
Finally, Dan Menaker, author of the memoir My Mistake, was the leader of the writing workshop I took down in Key West. Read it for the inside scoop on days at the New Yorker, from William Shawn to Tina Brown. Dan is a character.