Friendship, love, death, and the post office.
I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed the point with Ali Smith’s books. There seems to be so much going on, so many sudden moments of being touched by an idea, that it’s easy to think there could be more, but they went sailing past me.
In this book, there is a lot about death. Autumn, after all, is the season of death, the end of which at this time of year always seems strange to me as it’s the end of dying, the death of dying, and yet such a pretty time spent dying, a last hurrah. Daniel Gluck is 101 years and dying in a nursing home. He is visited by his old neighbour, a 32 year old women called Elizabeth who used to hang around him when she was a child. You could do that back then. When I was about four there was an elderly widower next door called Sid. I’d regularly climb over Sid’s fence, sit on his deck chair, and he’d give me Battenberg. I don’t just think it was the climate of non-suspicion, but children were able to behave around people’s houses better back then. I would sit at Sid’s table, drink overly-strong orange squash from a Cornishware mug and be no help at all to his crossword clues. I could listen to Radio 4 and the ticking of a clock. Most kids today would go out their minds at the boredom and slow-living we endured. Sitting listening to an old man talk about how the football pools and gas fridges worked (both mysteries of my childhood) was entertainment for me back then.
So, Daniel is dying, Elisabeth has found him and comes to read to him. We follow her life as she tries to use the ‘check and send’ service at the post office and they tell her photo will be rejected as her eyes are too small and her hair too far forward. It is a very, very recent book, so Elisabeth is living in the time of the EU Referendum, and the post-vote xenophobic attacks. Her mother wants to leave the country, the political instability rubs along well with Daniel’s frail grasp on life, the instability we all live with.
And on top of that, as Elisabeth is a history of art lecturer (temporary contract, still living in the flat she was when she was a student) we flash back, and around Pauline Boty, a pop artist who died tragically young of cancer (delaying treatment until her baby was born), who Daniel also had links to, and was part of a time when he was a popular songwriter. There’s also a fair amount of the Profumo affair in there, too, linking the two country-rocking political landscapes together.
I love books about death that dwell on the reality of knowing it’s coming, but not what’s coming. I like to listen to the old people in sheltered housing discuss blackly, humorously how many Christmases they have left, while that can make some of the other older people leave the room. And arranging a funeral with someone who is still alive, but not for much longer, is very humbling, and heartbreaking. I don’t know how people who know they are dying and soon don’t walk about all day permanently screaming.
But I’m rambling. This is a special book, especially if you are beginning to not recognise this country. It’s the big picture, as well as the small. And the characters are likeable. There always has to be a few annoying people in a book for balance, but I know I’ve really not enjoyed a book when I have disliked or despaired of most of the characters. It’s hard to spend any real quality time in the company of annoying planks or nasty pieces of work, and I’d like to know almost everyone in this book.