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3 April 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 1:25pm

Why Ali Smith is the national novelist we need

By Erica Wagner

On the evening of 27 March, two days before the UK was due to leave the EU, 100 or so people crammed into the London Review Bookshop, waiting in pin-drop silence for Ali Smith to read. That evening, the novelist launched Spring, the third volume of the seasonal quartet of books which began with Autumn, published shortly after the 2016 Leave vote. That book has often been described as the first “post-Brexit” novel, yet it is, like the books that follow and surely the Summer that is to come, very much more than that.

Autumn, Winter and Spring are stories of the unlikely connections human beings can make and the cost exacted when those connections are broken. They are state of the nation novels which understand that the nation is you, is me, is all of us: the nation is our choices, our fears, our losses. Each one engages with one of Shakespeare’s late comedies: The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles – in the summer will come The Winter’s Tale. And just as Shakespeare is – unarguably – our national poet, Smith, these days, might lay claim to the role of national novelist.

She would not claim this title herself: she’s as modest as she is compassionate and wise. (When she was made a CBE in 2015 she thought the letter was “an elaborate practical joke”, she told me.) As to what it means to be “the national novelist”: let’s agree this is a writer who speaks for a nation’s better self. It is worth observing that this unofficial position has almost always been occupied by a man.

Last week, in the pages of this magazine, its editor named Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan as among the British contenders; over in the US one hears the names of the late Philip Roth and John Updike, and Jonathan Franzen. Notice anything? With all due respect to those writers, and indeed to Jason Cowley, it’s funny how the national-anything seldom seems to be a woman, or a person of colour; my vote for America’s national novelist goes to Toni Morrison, who understands the sins and suffering of her country better than anyone alive (and indeed has been described as such by the New York Times).

Surely Smith fits the bill for Britain. Is there a writer so critically acclaimed and universally beloved? It’s striking that her 2014 novel, How to be Both, won the Women’s Prize, the Costa Novel Award and the Goldsmiths Prize, awards that are at least perceived to have different criteria – the former two more accessible, the latter a prize for formal experiment. This is Smith’s gift, to play with language so astutely that she builds a world both wholly original and perfectly familiar. In novels such as Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005) and There but for the (2011) her plots are driven by the spark of unexpected encounters. In her books it is often children or young people whose voices are those of inquisitiveness and truth.

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Perhaps Smith’s own background offers some insight into why she takes their thoughts and feelings so seriously. Born in Inverness in 1962, she is the youngest of five children; both her parents left school in their early teens. But she did not grow up among a crowd of sisters and brothers: she once told me that she was, effectively, an only child, since her nearest sibling in age was seven years older. She took her degree from the University of Aberdeen and embarked on a PhD at Cambridge – where she now lives – but the academic life didn’t suit her.

Smith has also published five collections of short stories and has written for the stage. Shire, published in 2013 – with images by her partner, the artist Sarah Wood – happily resists categorisation, blending essay, biography, fiction and myth. It’s not that her books question gender stereotypes: better to say they banish any thought of stereotype from the reader’s mind. Her characters are who they are: original, curious, conflicted, damaged, hopeful.

It is that sense of overriding hopefulness, which, I would argue, qualifies her to speak for us. She understands division: she held her peace during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 in part because, as she does not live in Scotland, she was not entitled to vote. At the time she told me she was both relieved and saddened by the result, but buoyed by the huge electoral turnout (85 per cent) – a sign of engagement in the political process.

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Since then, that engagement has sometimes taken a darker shape. Spring, in many ways, is the brightest of her planned quartet and yet contains the darkest passages of the whole sequence. The aptly-named character Brit works in an immigration removal centre: approximately 30,000 people are held in such centres all over the country. At the London Review Bookshop, Smith spoke forcefully of what she witnessed when she visited one such institution. She would never forget what she saw, Smith said to the crowd.

And yet Spring takes as an epigraph the motto of Pericles, exiled Prince of Tyre: in hac spe vivo – in this hope, I live. Hope allows us all to enter, just as Smith’s novels do. Ali Smith may never consider herself so, but she is the national novelist we need in 2019.

This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers