Autumn by Ali Smith: Book Review

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Genre: Fiction

Autumn is a very contemporary novel, set in the post Brexit Britain, exploring the themes of feminism, of memories and the fragility of life.

Elisabeth Demand, who could actually have been ‘de Monde’, is a junior lecturer in the history of art, having accepted art as a vocation early on. This is because of the charming and supportive neighbour she had as a child, the ‘arty art’, Daniel Glutch.

Through her growing up years, the 80 yr old Daniel, who has been a songwriter, keeps Elisabeth company, spending time with her and having long conversations about art and life. She loses touch with him for a decade or so but eventually tracks him down to an old age care facility where he lays sleeping and dying.

‘Autumn’ is about that season in our lives, the long winding down of lives lived brilliantly. Light and breezy on the surface, it reaches deep down into our hearts when it explores memories, moments and fragile relationships that are out of the ambit of the normal, accepted norms.

Review
Ali Smith is a Scottish writer whose book Autumn is considered the first post Brexit novel, touching upon the deep divide that UK saw over the referendum to withdraw from the EU.
It is an understated commentary, of the political situation in Britain. It also explores the themes of feminism through the fiesty British pop artist, Pauline Boty who is a thread that links Elisabeth and Daniel inextricably.

On the surface, the characters conform to societal norms but on a closer look they are all pushing their boundaries through their understanding of what’s right and how they want to live their lives. Wendy, Elisabeth’s mother courts arrest because she hates the fence and explores a same sex relationship late in her life. Elisabeth, the witty and the intelligent one, a ‘diificult’ child, has an undercurrent of understanding of the bleakness that surrounds her, affecting her directly and indirectly.

Autumn is a very much, of-our-times book, light, easy and seemingly mundane till we catch the brilliance of bold, unadulterated colours and forms/non forms and of images of images themselves. Art turns pop through an exploration of Pauline Boty’s work. Daniel is smitten and in turn, so is Elisabeth and those colours run right through the seeming shutting down of Daniel’s life.

The dialogue in the book is different. It is a free indirect discourse that brings us the feelings of the characters and yet keeps a distance from them.

What works well
In spite of the profound themes that are just beneath the surface, the book is very light, easy to read and contemporary. It has action inspersed with memories and musings and at no point does the gentle pace slacken so that we are led from one page to another regularly if not breathlessly.
The language is very evocative at places, especially when the paintings are described.

Pauline Boty, long gone is still a prominent character. She is there not only for art but richens the book in refering obliquely to the development of the world on her lines, modelled on her life. If she is a blast of colour, so are the other women, in their own ways.

What does not work so well
The voices of the different characters, especially the women, are all the same, nearly. Elisabeth is very witty, very intelligent and by the end of her book so is her mother who transforms from a selfish and neglecting mother to a caring and knowledgeable one. Her monologue of being sick of every thing just does not sound like her, the way her character has developed upto that point. Zoe, her mother’s fantasy star is much the same, witty, intelligent, discerning, just to a different degree. All the women seem to have been cast out of the same mould.

The child Elisabeth, at ten, is extremely clear. Her clarity of speech is disconcerting. Even at eight, her smarter self keeps peeping out from her little girl facade. Hannah, Daniel’s sister at twelve is like that too. Very witty, very smart, extremely well read and perspicacious.

I really wished some of the events in the book were followed through. We never find out about Hannah and how she died at a young age. We don’t know how it is that Daniel knows Pauline nor do we find out the cause of the rift between Elisabeth and Daniel that leads to their losing contact.

Verdict

Autumn explores the fragility and the brilliance of lives, of bold individual choices and the boundaries set on them by states and political systems. The book is an explosion of colour; vibrant and pulsing with life.
I am definitely waiting for the next three books in this series, named after the seasons.

This review is a part of collaborative book reviews that I am doing with fellow blogger, Bloggeray. Read his insightful review here.

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How to Create a Literary Masterpiece in 30 days

For the writers who sweat it out day after day, painstakingly writing and crossing out, editing and rewriting and creating worlds through sheer hard work, the idea of writing a novel in 30 days is a laughable proposition. And incredibly naive.

Having been through NaNoWriMo once and having survived, I can say with confidence that it is possible to set down 50 k words in a month but that makes only an initial draft. True, writing a novel or a book takes more than that, both in time and effort. But NaNoWriMo is the first push you can give yourself and the first clear commitment you can make to yourself for getting over that writing project or starting a new ambitious work that would eventually became a literary masterpiece.

First and foremost, have the energy and the plan to write 1667 words per day, if you are going to write each and every day. That, sometimes is not possible because life catches up so the word count should be a little higher as a cushion for the non writing days. Prepare to write a lot every day and to prioritise writing over a lot of other things, at least for a short period of a few weeks.

The next thing to be sure of is about what you are writing. I went in completely clueless last NaNoWriMo. I mean I had a vague plan, a very unformed story and just the mood and the emotion only three days before I actually started writing. This meant that I stumbled through the story for many days till I found my feet. I would go through the writing, even notching up the word count but much of the early writing needed to be cut out and rewritten. So having a good outline is good idea. There would be surprises, of course, and your story might veer off the path entirely but just in case the book does not write itself, you know in which direction to push it.

These are just two things, which, when done right would help you reach the 50k mark without much difficulty. Who knows, you may overshoot the mark and keep at the writing.

Good Luck to all the NaNoWrimers! Announce your novel to the world, soon.

NaNoWriMo 2017

Autumn is the season for reading and wtiting. After a month of reading voraciously, mainly the Booker nominated books (a couple more reviews to come, here are the links to Elmet, the Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo and Exit West), I am ready to go into the November writing festival of NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo in November is the best binge-writing time of the year, with thousands of writers coming together (virtually) to churn out entire novels, and complete an ambitious word count of 50,000 words in a mere 30 days.

I have always loved the idea of writing a lot, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. It brings to my mind romantic notions of a cabin in the dense woods of a hill, the pine scents pervading everything, no sounds except the chirping of the birds and no mundane daily routine either. It tells me that I am a writer first and foremost and I can pour out my soul into those pages.

But real life is rarely such a dream and we all have to earn and work and get through our days doing boring and unpleasant chores and sometimes writing takes a backseat. November is an excellent time to remind ourselves of our higher calling and purpose.

So I settle down this year, committed to writing at least 1667 words per day, putting down words without much editing or much fear or much self criticism so that I can create a shining, new draft that would become my next book.

Wish me luck. And tell me if you are joining along.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: Book Review

Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction

Exit West is a story of love and loss, set against the backdrop of war and migration.

It starts in an unnamed city, presumably somewhere in the middle East and talks of the growing unrest there. The city is bursting with refugees and militants are gaining ground. It is in this time of impending turmoil that Saeed and Nadia find each other and try to grow their acquaintance tentatively.

Nadia is surprisingly independent, fierce and sure whereas Saeed is gentle and reticent. Soon, the war reaches them and Saeed’s mother is killed. This precipitates a situation in which Nadia moves to Saeed’s place. However, it is clear that they cannot stay in their city or country for long and try to move out to another place, safer and with more opportunities.

Exit West is the story of the migration of the pair, Saeed and Nadia and of countless others, across countries and continents so that the face of the earth is ever changing.

Review

The novel starts in an unnamed city and as people go about their normal lives, the warring and increasingly unsafe city is kept at an arm’s length, out of their private worlds. Indeed, we don’t get a real feel of the city at all and this may have been done deliberately so that this city could be anyplace the reader can imagine.

The city is under seige and we learn of the difficulties that the ordinary citizen faces. It was quietly reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s book, ‘We the living’, that explores war and desperation.

“…that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

One recurring motif in Exit West is blackness, the rectangular blackness that may mean to be doors that are mysterious and leading to equally mysterious destinations. These doors bring a touch of magic realism to an otherwise very realistic representation of the starkness of life in a war torn city. The technique is surprising and yet it does not stand out like a sore thumb.

Exit West touches on the cyclical nature of the world and of life.

What works well

Exit West has a different feel to it when you read the words and the sentences. Mohsin Hamid seems to be saying things in one breath so that he can set it all down before any of his thoughts get lost. The long sentences, oh, the multiple clauses and the rambling on, so that one sentence becomes a complete paragraph and a page. I found this way of writing and explaining and going off on a tangent, even within a sentence very liberating, so that all the thoughts that one can have for a particular thing are put in one place, separated in their breathlessness by mere commas.

The love story of the main characters, if their relationship could be called so, has a typical arc of infatuation, attachment and then indifference which may or may not melt into anger or bitterness. The romance is not fairy tale, as in our times. In this way, it mirrors relations everywhere and the way the characters are etched, clear enough but not very unique, so that they can represent many other young people of their country and elsewhere gives it an air of universality.

The writing is purposeful. Mohsin Hamid is a man with a clear story in his mind and he moves with clarity.

What does not work so well

The first half of the book, namely the coming-together and getting-to-know-each-other part and managing life in times of war is interesting. The little details are touching, like the lemon tree or the dyers in the millitant occupied neighborhood or the changing face of the city, the chequers of city that are held by opposing sides in a war. But the second half becomes more of a commentary on our times, on migration and the hopelessness of it all and the challenges that are faced by both the fleeing and the places where they land. I felt a little lost in this part of the book when I moved across continents with the people.

Verdict

A sensitive portrayal of love, war and migration. Read it for a commentary on our times and the unique narrative structure.

I am doing the book reviews of 2017 Man Booker nominated books with fellow blogger Bloggeray. Read Bloggeray’s wonderfully incisive review of the book here.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: Book Review

Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

Author: George Saunders

Genre: Fiction

Lincoln in the Bardo is the fictional account of Abraham Lincoln’s one night at the cemetary where his dead 11 year old son has been laid to rest. The story of a father’s deep grief plays out in the backdrop of the Civil War.

The title of the book uses the word ‘Bardo’ and as per Wikipedia, Bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena.

George Saunders

George Saunders, the master short story teller has delivered his first novel based on a historical fact, in an experimental form with stunning effect. It starts with Willie, the 11 year old son of Lincoln on his sickbed. The civil war is on but the White house is decked up for an opulent state reception. The festivities are described through historic accounts of that time. Through the night, Willie gets sicker and dies. Two nights later, the grieving President visits the cemetary where his son is temporarily interred, returning on at least two occasions to hold his dead son’s body. The book focuses on this night and the spirits present in the cemetary. They are in transition or in a ‘bardo’ and the story progresses through the voices of these souls.

Review

If I were to sum up the book in one word, I would say, ‘Unusual’. Lincoln in the Bardo is unusual in content, form and style. The story is little more than ‘one event’, which is the death of Willie Lincoln, the 11 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln. The entire book spans only a single night in the cemetary where Willie’s body is kept. And yet, through the voices that tell the story, we watch entire lives being constructed in as little as a paragraph.

The title seems to suggest that it is Abraham Lincoln who is in the Bardo but in truth it is Lincoln jr, who is stuck in the intermediate, undecided and yet giving a direction to all others when he does speak up.

The narration of the story is through a plethora of voices; rather curiously embodied as distorted forms, hovering in the cemetary in that space between life and afterlife. They are the reluctant dead, dead but reluctant to face the finality of their farewell from the memories and sensations of the physical world.

Interspersed with this continuous narration, which sounds sometimes like a play and sometimes like a film script, are the references taken from historic sources for the purpose of moving the story forward. Some of the sources are imagined.

The result is a curious, interesting medley of observations, made by real people and by spirits which are not so real, with the underlying theme of inconsistency. It is the perspective of the mind which is put in the spotlight, for the various historical accounts differ as to the presence of moon, the countenance of the President, the fact whether he was homely or ugly or even the colour of his hair. The spirits, of course are inconsistent, as we find out later in the book; memories are selective and repetitive and some facts are conveniently forgotten or glossed over.

The main voices in the cemetary are those of Hans Vollerman and Roger Bevins III with the Reverend completing the trio. The spirits in the Bardo are not real people, underlined by the fact that the author chooses to write the names without capitalising them.

The voices are also like the narratives that run in our heads. These are the stories we tell others of our lives and the secrets that we keep bottled up. At times, the chorus of voices grows desperate and comes at us thick and fast.

The medley of voices sometimes turns into a cacophony as the spirits talk at cross purposes, hearing what they want to and replying as they please. Even the background action is supplied by the voices.

The story moves back and forth, as thoughts do in minds. The memories are rehashed and relived, in the minds of the reluctant dead and the living.

“These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now must lose them.”

What works well

Inspite of the many voices, the narrative is cogent and each character or voice is worked through very well. It becomes a delight to encounter them again and again as the book progresses.

In other ways, Lincoln in the Bardo is a sensory feast that packs quite a punch. The absence of the physical form, or a reasonable physical form heightens the reader’s sensibilities so much that the cornucopia of images is a delight and a horror, held together by a sense of awe.

“Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.”

The grief of losing a child is visceral and this is tied neatly to the many other deaths at that time of the Civil War.

Deep themes are explored, those of grief, of the lies we tell ourselves, of racism, even in the Bardo and our grasping of time-wanting more and more. And yet, there is a touch of the irreverent in the book. There are the immense number of eyes, ears, noses, hands for Roger Bevins and there is the swollen member of Hans Vollman which brings a modicum of hilarity. The perpetual ‘o’ of the Reverend’s face, the three orbs representing her daughters that hover in front of Jane Ellis are all an embodiment of fun.

The backdrop of the Civil war is as disturbing to the mind as the deep grief of a recent loss. The popular sentiment of the country is expressed through the spirit of Thomas Havens.

“We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do.”

The imagery is fantastic, especially the veritable feast of sights and hallucinatory visions when the spirits are tempted to move on.

“Rose petals rained down, a joyful provocation: red, pink, yellow, white, purple. Then translucent petals; striped petals; dotted petals; petals inscribed (when you took one from the ground and looked closely at it) with detailed images (down to the broken flower-stems and dropped toys) of one’s childhood yard. Finally golden petals rained down (of real gold!), ticking with each impact against tree or markerstone.”

My only regret is that I have only read the book. Listening to the audio book would be surely a wonderful experience. It’s a rare occasion where I suspect that listening to the audiobook – the full cast of which is apparently an astonishing 166 people – will be a far superior experience to reading the text alone.

Verdict

A heartbreaking tale that holds up a mirror to the lives we live as well as an exploration of grief and death.

An excellent feast for your senses. Truly imaginative and innovative. Should not be missed.

This is the second review in the 2017 Man Booker shortlisted books that I am doing in collaboration with Bloggeray from Musingsite. Read his excellent review here.

A Wonderful Quest

There are times that a book comes along which is so refreshing and different that it forces you to step out of your mental comfort zone and look for answers.

The Quest of the Sparrows by Ravi ‘Nirmal’ Sharma and Kartik Sharma, the father-son duo, is a read that has inspired me to live an authentic life and to be generous. I am grateful to the Universe for conspiring to bring this book to me which has been such a lot of joy.

The Quest of the Sparrows

Take a look at the philosophy that guided the writing of the book.

https://youtu.be/tZEPfM_z638

Read the review of the book here.