At a time when the people of Britain (and now the US) seem to be moving further and further apart politically and the voice that shouts the hardest and loudest is the one that is listened to, Ali Smith steps in to calmly and beautifully lay out her case for humanity, for love, for learning, for understanding in a way that only a writer of her caliber can.
We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.
The story goes like this: Elisabeth visits her old neighbour, Daniel Gluck, in a care home who is unconscious and may or may not be dying. Elisabeth stays with her mother while she visits, Elisabeth tries to renew her passport several times. Elisabeth is a Art History lecturer and wrote about Pauline Boty, the only female British Pop Artist who is forgotten and ignored by much of the art establishments. In flashbacks we see how Elisabeth and Daniel become friends and how all of them are connected. In dream sequences we see Daniel exploring a strange, natural world.
It’s a simple story and it’s not a simple story.
Storytelling and narrative is important to Ali Smith, or how narrative is created and by who and how those that create are treated. Early on in the novel Elisabeth visits a post office and in a Kafka-esque scene of warped bureaucracy tries to renew her passport (she fails because her “eyes are too small”) and in the midst of this Elisabeth muses with the man behind the counter about narrative and intent, about what gets shown and what doesn’t:
[L]ike the way if you’re watching a film or a drama and there’s a child cycling away on a bicycle and you see the child going, getting further away, and especially if you watch this happen from a camera position behind that child, well, something terrible’s bound to be about to happen to that child […] You can’t just be a child and cycle away because you’re off to the shops any more.
Ali Smith is pointing us here to the power the author or film-maker holds in what they chose to show in a narrative and how that will be interpreted. Creativity is about decisions: what gets left in and what gets left out, that’s where the meaning lies. Art too, of course, what one chooses to paint, what colour goes where, what images are put next to others – this is how meaning is created, how art is created. Narrative, meaning: it’s all just a series of decisions made for the reader or viewer to interpret.
In the novel Daniel tells stories to Elisabeth and they both enjoy games of storytelling and lies. On Desert Island Discs in November 2016 Ali Smith said: “There’s a difference between lies and stories y’know” and in the novel Daniel teaches Elisabeth to think critically about the difference between the two (or how not so different they might be):
There’s no point in making up a world, Elisabeth said, when there’s already a real world. There’s just the world, and there’s the truth about the world.
You mean, there’s the truth, and then there’s the made up version of it that we get told about the world, Daniel said.
No. The world exists. Stories are made up, Elisabeth said.
But no less true for that, Daniel said.
There’s a strong bond between Daniel and the young Elisabeth, he assumes a teaching role for her, but rather than lecture he tries to make her question the world around them and the implication is Elisabeth would not have become an Art History teacher had it not been for Daniel and his way of shifting her perspective on the images and stories she experiences. This relationship is at the core of the novel and is the driving force behind the plot. We are drip feed their past history and we slowly begin to understand the bond between the two of them. It felt clear to me that Elisabeth was in love with Daniel, or more specifically with his way of thinking about the world.
Love is another a strong theme in the novel and the many different types of love, we have Elisabeth’s love for Daniel, Daniel’s unrequited love for his artist (both cross-generational loves), Elisabeth’s mother’s new found love with a celebrity from her childhood which reinvigorates her life, Daniel’s love of music, Elisabeth’s love of art, Boty’s love of art and image. It’s also about love at the fringes, or people perceived as outsiders who are constantly misread. Pauline Boty sits outside of the traditional art establishment and is misread as a pretty blonde and no more, while her intellect and artistic merit is ignored. (Boty refuses categorisation and this binary by using her beauty, self-image and intellect to subvert the expectations of her audience) Daniel Gluck is misread consistently as gay by Elisabeth’s mother (who later falls in love with a woman) and Elisabeth misreads her mother as either ineffective or unloving during her childhood. Some of these misreadings are corrected in the novel, others not, but the implication is that our internal lives are messy and complicated, that we all have much more to say and to give than we are allowed to express.
An allusion is drawn in the misreading to the “refugee crisis” and Brexit – the ways that people are mislabeled and misunderstood (sometimes willfully). A house is spray painted with GO HOME and then responded to with WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU – someone is taken for someone else, perceived as ‘other’ and their humanity, their self, their personhood ignored. It’s unusual to read a book that is this contemporary, that is set literally now in the Autumn of 2016. Smith comments on Brexit, on a country divided, the lines we draw between each other and boundaries we impose. Boundaries and binary divisions Ali Smith tells us do no good. It’s interesting to see how a writer responds to current politics, and Smith deftly weaves the personal story of Elisabeth with the wider national politics, drawing connections between the role art and literature has in offering new perspectives and to create empathy and understanding with others.
What I love about Ali Smith is that in deceptively simple prose and through character and conversation she nudges the reader towards the ideas and concepts she is thinking about. She doesn’t lecture or explain but rather offers up new ways of looking and asks the reader to consider them and draw their own conclusions. This is, I think, one of the greatest ways a writer can serve their readership. They should not give answers, but offer up new questions about the world around us and our role in shaping it.