It is November and outside my front door roses are still blooming. Their color is a deep rich clear pink. They look better than they did in the dry heat of summer.
Smith’s first novel in her proposed quartet of volumes is an utter delight. I’d never encountered her voice before but when I got to the end, I looked again at the beginning. Just as well, because I had forgotten that Daniel speaks, briefly, before the story gets picked up by “his granddaughter,” Elisabeth, with an “s.”
What I find queer, now having finished the novel, is why people talk about this as a Brexit novel. It is a novel of our times, told by a smart and savvy observer, but I would have put the emphasis squarely on the exploitation and disregard of women, their work, their point of view. Especially at this moment of lurid sexual scandal with roots supposedly in the 1960’s, “when the ethos was different,” we hear a voice that pierces that veil of ignorance and disregard and looks squarely at the mystery of history. Smith has caught our moment perfectly.
The real beauty of this novel is the heart of the novelist. She sees the hard truths we negotiate every day and does not deny them but looks instead at our vulnerabilities, and how we need one another to perfect our world. The work is something reminiscent of pop art, jazzy and clever but with echoes…instead of a piece of pink lace stuck variously under paint on the canvas, a memory…of children washing up on a beach, or women being pushed and herded onto buses…so slight a mention they are mere shadows.
But then Daniel asks explicitly, the first time they play Bagatelle, “Sure you want war?” before patiently instructing Elisabeth in the importance of diversity of thought: how the idea of ‘threatening’ is not unidirectional and can all be in one’s own mind. Daniel becomes companion, teacher, friend to adolescent Elisabeth, dismissed by Elisabeth’s mother as ‘that old queen.’
What to make of Elisabeth’s mother?
Smith marks time in this novel by describing the physical environment, the state of the roses, the chill in the air, the gossamer filaments of spider webs bearing beads, the color and position of leaves (on the trees, fallen to the ground). It positions us in a shifting timescape, though Daniel’s lifetime, and encapsulating the art of the first (and only?) female pop artist in Britain. Pauline Boty was…dismissed is too intentional a word…ignored during her career as an artist because she was beautiful and female. It makes one want to pair those two descriptors forever, in solidarity.
“And whoever makes up the story makes up the world…So always try to welcome people into the home of your story…”I felt welcomed into the kindnesses Smith creates in this novel. There is wickedness in the world, and tragedy, but it doesn’t have to define us. We can create a world that turns inexorably, like the seasons, to longer days and more clement weather. And we can find people to love in the most unlikely places. Love may be the [only?] thing that makes life worthwhile.
This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.
You can buy this book here: Tweet