I really enjoyed Ali Smith’s How to be Both; this one for me was more hit and miss.
A dysfunctional or normal family – pretty much the same thing nowadays – rents a holiday home in Norfolk. One day a mysterious stranger, a woman called Amber, arrives and ends up moving in with them. All four members of the family metaphorically are very much waiting for an amber light to turn to green and Amber’s redemptive role is to reveal how this light might be changed. The first problem for me was Amber herself. She’s something of a cliché as an inspirational free spirit. More of a new age traveller than a sorceress or annunciation angel. Her remedies for the supposedly stifling middle class malaise gripping the family (this malaise isn’t altogether convincing) are somewhat hackneyed. She introduces the son Magnus to sex and teaches Astrid to be hostile to public opinion and property. In fact there’s a kind of hollow hippy philosophy at the back of this novel. Amber doesn’t really have any convincing alternative reality to offer though Smith tries to convince us, unsuccessfully for me, that her belligerent ministrations are empowering, redemptive, life changing.
The other big problem is the unevenness of the characters. Each of the family members gets an equal share of the narrative. The females, especially the young Astrid are compelling and penetratively imagined; the two males, on the other hand, are flat and unconvincing. Husband and stepfather Michael is little more than a cliché – it doesn’t matter that he himself comes to accept himself as a cliché: a professor who serially sleeps with his students. At one point he even decides he’s going to pick the prettiest checkout girl in a supermarket and sleep with her: an hour later he implausibly achieves his ambition in the back of his car while she’s on lunchbreak. At one point I remember thinking that Ali Smith is a bit like the British Nicole Krauss except there’s more artistry in Krauss’ playfulness. Smith, by comparison, can come across as both whimsical and pretentious. Also thematically Krauss is more rigorously masterful; she rarely loses control of her core material; Smith, on the other hand, tends to overreach herself, go off on tangents as if she wants to include in her book everything she thinks about modern life. Prime example of this is when Amber is given a voice and we get five pages of hugely pretentious prose about cinema as if therein lies the explanation for everything. But for this novel to work you have to believe Amber leads the way to discovery in her disciples or victims and for me this only really worked with the pitch perfect Astrid. There were times when I wished the entire novel was about Astrid with perhaps Amber as a presence only she could see and hear.
What saves the day is Smith’s writing which is always quirkily eloquent and pulsing with vitality. Her characterisation of a 12 year old girl is also one of the best I’ve ever come across. However if you fancy reading her I’d recommend How to Be Both over this.