Thursday 28 September 2023

Companion Piece, Ali Smith

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Smith’s latest offering follows in the footsteps of her Seasonal Quartet. This is a novel written in real-time, dealing with the Covid pandemic, but with Smith’s characteristic ability to connect the present with a broader history. Our protagonist, Sandy, is an artist whose father is in hospital following a heart attack. She is unable to visit due to Covid restrictions, and so awaits news from a nurse, occasionally able to video call. Out of the blue, she receives a call from someone she barely knew at college, wanting to tell her a bizarre story about a recent ordeal in an airport, believing that Sandy will be able to make sense of it. Before she knows what is happening, her home is invaded by Martina’s family, none of whom take the pandemic seriously and so she relocates to her father’s house, afraid of becoming ill and not being able to see her father. We are then transported back to the seventeenth century and a promising young blacksmith being forcibly removed from her forge. It highlights the gender injustices of the time and the resilience of the young woman during a period of plague. 

Covid is present in the novel, yet it doesn’t feel like the main purpose. The Pelf family are an extreme version of people completely oblivious to the needs of others, taking over Sandy’s house without a second thought. The twins are suspicious, accusatory, and very much of their generation in the way that they speak, work, and view the world. They have the sense of invincibility that comes with youth for many. Despite having had Covid and continuing to suffer symptoms, there are no precautions taken, no concern that they’re co-habiting with someone currently suffering from it. They are blind to the world at large as well as to Sandy’s needs, it doesn’t occur to them that she needs to be particularly careful so she can visit her unwell father. They inhabit a world of entitlement, to their mother as she has been, to other people’s attention.

Sandy doesn’t have children but this theme of cross-generational relationships appear for her not just through her interactions with the young Pelfs, but also with her own father. She is an artist, using the words of great poets to create meaningful visual representations, but her father struggles to understand her chosen path in life, bemoaning the potential that he perceives as being wasted. There is affection between them but also a distance, a misunderstanding of each other’s world view and expectations that will be familiar to many readers.

Martina’s experience at the airport, being detained for having passports from two different countries, touches on familiar ground for Smith - the bureaucracy and abuse of it that often leads to human suffering, suspicion of those from other countries. To a lesser extent we also see the culture of surveillance in the work of one of the twins, constantly monitored for productivity and pulled up if they fall below the set rate. In the historical setting, we see the whims of bureaucracy causing terrible consequences for our heroine. With her mentor dead, people circle wanting to take the forge away from her. At the time, her virginity was essential for her to continue as an apprentice, and so a plot is devised to ensure she cannot continue in her position. Power will always be abused by those who wield it.

Smith examines the use of language and the way it has changed. There is discussion by the characters of the way grammar is so fluid but that the use of they/them in the singular is nothing new. The use of text speak (ey em oh etc) in spoken language feels ridiculous when written down, and the constant need to explain to Sandy what the abbreviations mean make any time saved entirely wasted. Social media is touched upon lightly, from the sharing of (mis)information to its perceived necessity in being successful in life. It forces us to consider the way we connect with our fellow humans, and the value of words.

Smith presents events from recent times in a way that feels like satire, but depressingly are fact. The book is littered with references to current events, almost without comment yet with great feeling behind them. This is an intriguing novel, and one in which I could happily read more of both stories. The Pelfs are infuriating, Sandy is a bit of an enigma, and the girl in the past has so much potential in a world that would rather restrict it. The connection through time is wrapped up at the end, but there is much still to wonder about how their stories end. 

Friday 15 September 2023

The Salt Path, Raynor Winn

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Raynor Winn and her husband Moth’s lives fall apart when they lose a legal battle due to a technicality in submitting evidence, losing them their home. They receive another huge blow when Moth is diagnosed with an incurable degenerative disease, all within a matter of days. When the bailiffs come to their home a walking book provides the inspiration they need to keep moving forward. They soon find themselves on the South West Coast Path, walking from Minehead to Land’s End, and after that who knows? It’s a dramatic, emotional start to a book that will shine a light on people’s misconceptions of those who become homeless.

Ray naturally struggles to accept the imminent loss of her life partner, and it takes most of the 630 mile walk for them to be able to openly speak the words. Their two children, young adults living their lives in shared houses, seem to have made their peace with it, but we see events through Ray’s eyes and so this doesn’t become clear until she’s able to face it. The weight of their loss haunts them, but she acknowledges how it impacts their children, the loss of security of having a home to go back to if they need it. Unable to offer their parents somewhere to stay, they look on from afar, occasional calls keeping them in touch. They might struggle to understand what their parents are embarking upon, but they support them.

It might seem like a strange idea, to be advised by a doctor not to over-exert yourself, to take it carefully on stairs, to decide to walk a punishing route, wild camping and barely eating on their £30 a week. And yet, Moth becomes healthier than he has been in a long time, the pain in his shoulder ever present but not stopping him. He loses weight and becomes more muscular as they carry heavy packs over steep cliffs and through dense woodland. Ray doesn’t shy away from the fact it is difficult. Paddy Dillon’s book, their guide, underplays the intensity of the path, he races ahead of them as they slowly wend their way along the coast. They live mostly off noodles, rice, and tuna, learning to take pleasure in watching others eat food that is far out of their reach. 

There’s plenty of humour to be found too. Their long-running saga of people mistaking Moth for Simon Armitage, a name they’re not familiar with, leads them into some strange scenarios, including Moth receiving a massage from a local business owner’s assistant. They come to assign categories to other walkers they encounter, many of whom are so focussed on racing across as many miles as possible that they miss out on so much of the value of doing it. They meet a range of characters along the way, from those who are friendly until they mention their situation to familiar faces they see again and again, and an unfortunate amount of early dog walkers who always seem to appear at the worst possible moment. They are repeatedly told how old they are, and how lucky to have the luxury of time, the freedom to keep walking until they choose to stop rather than having to rush back to jobs. The reality is that the end point is scary because after it they don’t know what happens.

As time passes they notice that they are far more comfortable in the more remote areas of the path, being around a lot of people puts them on edge. A mix-up with a ferry means they have to sleep in a town one night and it leaves them shaken and wondering how people do it night after night. Despite having next to nothing themselves, whenever they can help others they do, sharing their meagre rations of food. They’re also met with much kindness, from others living without homes and also those living in more comfort. Many make a quick exit when they realise they’re not walking for fun with a home waiting for them at the end, but others are interested in their story, want to help. Ray is very conscious of the fact their lack of access to washing facilities means they smell, her hair becomes knotted, and they are both extremely sunburnt. Some judge them and try to keep them away but their experience is a reminder to us all not to judge those less fortunate than ourselves, to offer kindness rather than hate. This is ultimately a hopeful book, you go in expecting it as the very existence of the book suggests a turn in fortune at some point, but there are many more stories that we will never hear, of people who are never given a chance.

Throughout it all is Ray and Moth, having shared three decades of life they are a solid pair, and seem to get on remarkably well for people spending all day every day together for months on end in such difficult circumstances. Their love is strong, and although there is no miracle cure for Moth, they make the most of the time they have together, making memories and basking in each other’s company. It reminds us of what is really important in life, to never take time with our loved ones for granted. At times a deeply moving book, it definitely had me tearing up, but it is interesting and humorous, and full of love, for this land, and for each other.

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