In Conversation with Ali Smith

Last week I saw Ali Smith in conversation with Jackie Kay through Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts.

Smith is an award winning author, with multiple Man Booker nominations and a Bailey’s Prize win for her acclaimed novel How to Be Both. Her recent project is one of much bigger proportions and began with her 2016 novel Autumn, which has been called the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel. The series will see four books, each named after a season, written right up to the mark of contemporary politics and current affairs, with the second installment, Winter, due at the end of this year.

Smith is incredibly astute and eloquent in her writing and no different in person – she frequently expresses quotable maxims, starting with ‘dialogue is what life is’, when discussing the style of her most recent novel and the relationship between it’s two main characters Elisabeth and Daniel. A reading from the book illustrates how it resonates with people – a bureaucratic trip to the Post Office had many in the audience nodding and laughing in recognition.

The discussion that followed was rich and philosophical; exploring how people are made of of who they were, and all the possibilities of who they can be. Looking at the importance of being ‘current’ in her most recent project Smith notes that we will always be pushed up against the moment, and the thing that allows us to expands dimensionally is knoweldge – the importance of books and reading an important recurring theme within Autumn. Daniel constantly asks Elisabeth what she is reading, telling her ‘always be reading something.’

Another stellar quote from the night was her idea that ‘imagination is the nation to which we will all always belong.’ This sentiment is a beautiful, unifying concept when thinking about a book which is concerned with an issue so divisive as Brexit, and the polarisation in political views that we have seen across the Western world over the last year or so.

Perhaps the best moment of the evening was an audience question asking the authors the most important books to them. Jackie Kay chose The Black Unicorn, Collected Checkov and Autumn itself. Smith chose Kay’s Trumpet, Collected Shakespeare, and ‘whatever I read next’ because books never end.

It was so lovely to see two writers who admire each other so much and are evidently close friends in discussion together, talking about incredibly interesting subjects. I was very excited to speak to Smith after the event and get my copy of Autumn signed. All in all a wonderful night and I’m incredibly excited for the next in the series!



Review: Flesh and Bone and Water

3 stars

It is hard to describe the plot of this book without spoilers. The story is told from Andre’s perspective, as an adult, looking back on the events which occurred during the year of his 18th birthday and which completely changed his life, taking him from his home in Rio, to permanently living in London.

By about a third of the way through you begin to develop suspicions of what may have happened to Andre and Luana. Sauma does a good job of toying with the readers expectations and it was entertaining. However, I couldn’t help but feel it fell a bit flat. The eventual revelation is momentous and despite the short length of the book, there is a huge build up to it, however the amount of time exploring the issue itself is so short and is focused far more on continuation of the plot than exploring what it means for those involved.

I loved how the novel was immersed in Brazil and Brazilian culture and the prose was beautiful and really evoked the mood. Unfortunately, I struggled with Andre as a character; he was difficult to relate to and once the primary plot twist become obvious, I felt it lacked anything deeper and more compelling. The strands of the story came together well, however I would have loved it to explore issues like what happened to Andre’s mother, or Luana’s own situation more. I wonder if perhaps chapters from Luana’s perspective might have been more interesting in these respects. I think it was simply because the novel was so short that it didn’t quite reach my expectations.

It was definitely readable and I would be keen to try more from Sauma. I did enjoy her style and thought her plot was very interesting, unfortunately it just didn’t blow me away.

I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Review: Homegoing

5 stars

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is an exquisitely written epic of one family, spanning a number of experiences throughout African American history, over the space of more than 200 years and eight generations. The story is episodic, featuring brief coverage of a member of each generation from two different perspectives – one strand of the family who mostly remained in Ghana, and one sold as slaves in America.

The stories of these people, through slavery, emancipation, the civil rights struggles, police brutality, and drugs in America, as well as the wars and hardships they faced in their homeland is heartbreaking and beautiful. Within so few pages, such an emotional connection is developed with these characters – who are constantly struggling with issues of race and identity against the background of colonialism. The characters each went through different struggles with their identities, and relationships with white people. In writing this novel, Gyasi didn’t shy away from the difficulties of womanhood, sexual relationships, or sexual identity either, with such a vast range of female characters embodying vastly different experiences, not to mention the potential suggestion of homosexuality  in one particular character. Despite their often domestic settings, the women are not confined to motherhood, and are all presented as autonomous, individuals, often strong and with their own desires. With many of the characters, I found myself constantly wishing that they could just have a happy ending after all the hardships they had faced.

There are very few overt references to dates or eras – time is measured through generations of family or through social context, which prevents it from feeling like a history book and keeps it personal. The only fault I could mention was that sometimes it was frustrating to reach the climax of a characters story, only to move back to the parallel tale of the other side of the family – however, it was this structure that makes the book so dynamic and you often catch up with previous characters you were invested in through their children.

This book is an epic and heart-wrenching tale of black history. It’s beautifully written, symbolic, and literary, without ever tipping into cliche or predictability. The characters and their stories are so compelling that you won’t be able to put it down. This is a truly exciting debut novel and I cannot wait to read what Gyasi has in store for the future.

I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Penguin UK

The Man Booker Prize 2016: Round-Up

With the announcement of the winner this evening, here is a round up and some final thoughts on the Man Booker shortlist:

Hot Milk

A weird and wonderful, very contemporary, abstract analysis of female sexuality and different female relationships. Levy’s style is much like DeLillo but far more readable, making her a top contender. As this is her second nomination for the prize, Levy has been an early favourite to win.

His Bloody Project 

The second novel of Graeme Macrae Burnet has certainly been an underdog, going from a small Scottish publisher Contraband, to being the biggest seller of the shortlist according to Amazon. The novel has been incredibly well received by readers, but the question is whether commercial success will translate to prize-winning?


Very engaging and easy to read, as well as entertaining, which comes as no surprise after author Ottessa Moshfegh admits the novel was an exercise in writing a best-seller. While there is no doubt the seeds of success are there, the big question will be whether Moshfegh has pushed her luck with this confession.

The Sellout 

An exploration of ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-Obama’ America, you cannot argue that this book is ahead of the game for contemporary fiction, with Obama not yet out of office. While this book couldn’t be more necessary or relevant in the light of the current political landscape in both America and much of the West, Beatty’s novel seems to be lagging behind the others.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien’s epic tale of 20th Century China is the only book so far touted as being worthy of the Booker Prize for its ‘literary’ quality. Last minute betting has put the odds in Thien’s favour, emerging ahead of Hot Milk, which was the early favourite.

All That Man Is

Winner of the Gordon Burn Prize at Durham Book Festival, this novel already has a prize under its belt, However. it has been controversial due to its form, with many arguing that it reads more like short stories than a comprehensive work, though the author has firmly maintained that it is a novel, making it an interesting nominee.

Final Thoughts?

I have only read three of the nominees – Eileen, Hot Milk ,and His Bloody Project, but have been keeping up with wider discussions. Do Not Say We Have Nothing currently seems like a favourite to win, but I am hoping Burnet does as His Bloody Project was a fantastic, clever, and incredibly well-written book. As well as the commercial success which shows it to be a best-seller, trumping Moshfegh’s attempt, I also think it has the literary quality to be a real contender. I have heard very little about The Sellout, although its relevance in the current social and political landscape shouldn’t be underestimated. I think that All That Man Is sounds incredibly interesting and I love the idea of the format, though it isn’t completely revolutionary – Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is a novel which is similarly structured through different short stories of the characters. Equally, I would find it disappointing if a book which largely centres on European male experience was to win, particularly after a similarly white, male and western-centric choice with Dylan winning the Nobel. At least if Burnet were to win, his novel deals with the nuance of mental illness within the justice system – something still very relevant today, and it would also champion small publishers, not to mention regional writing considering the Scottish heritage of the novel.

For Burnet to win would also make the Booker a bit more accessible – it is clearly the people’s favourite, whereas another ‘typical’ Booker winner would confirm the Prize’s ‘high flown’ and ‘literary’ status. Overall, my money is on Levy or Thien to win, although I would love for it to be Burnet, as the novel is my favourite so far (I will try to read them all!). However, even if he doesn’t it is clear he has already found success!

Review: Zero K

As a huge fan of White Noise I’ve been keen to read more DeLillo for a while so what is the perfect opportunity other than a newly released book? 
I was very excited to read Zero K which I think made my experience of the first half worse than it might have been. While there were plenty of characteristic DeLillo quirks this section did feel like wading through a, somewhat clinical, swamp.

The premise is that Jeffrey Lockhart visits his father’s facility which cryogenically stores the dying and this is soon to be done to Jeffrey’s step mother. The book deals with typical themes of DeLillo but these seem less unified than previous works.

However far be it from me to make a judgement as to the quality of DeLillo’s writing; I believe this is that atmosphere he wanted to create, to emulate the experience of Jeffrey in his readers’ minds.

The second part of the book was in stark contrast allowing for reflection on the first. Like other DeLillo novels there was less plot than musings but he does this well merging the beauty of his language with philosophy and politics.

Zero K skilfully explores our contemporary thoughts and fears on death without pushing too far into the macabre. However some of the ideas feel like at best an extension and at worst a rehash of Falling Man.

Overall I did enjoy this work but not as much as I was hoping to, although it may be unfair for me to compare a novel so profoundly serious to a satire like White Noise and so it certainly does stand on its own merit.