A girl’s friendship with an older neighbor stands at the center of this multifaceted meditation on aging, art, love, and affection.
Smith (Public Library and Other Stories, 2016, etc.) opens this volume, the first of a planned quartet featuring each season, with a man washed ashore naked. He wonders if he is dead. He sees a girl nearby and sews himself some clothing from leaves after a needle and a bobbin of gold thread appear in his hand. From dream or fantasy, the narrative shifts to hard reality: the man, Daniel, next appears asleep in a hospital bed in the present time, age 101. His visitor is Elisabeth, age 32, a university lecturer in art history who has just endured the painful comedy of bureaucracy while trying to renew her passport at the post office. She met Daniel when she was 8 and needed to interview him for a school project. The book will jump around in time as Daniel introduces Elisabeth to puns, storytelling, and art, especially that of a woman he loved named Pauline Boty. She was an actual U.K. artist of the pop era who made a brief appearance in the movie Alfie. Her work included a portrait of Christine Keeler during the Profumo Affair, and Smith has fun with Keeler’s court appearances. History is also current, as Smith touches on the friction caused by Brexit nationwide (with a pointed opening allusion to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities) and in one town where some undefined menace arises with the installation of large electrified fences. Smith has a gift for drawing a reader into whatever world she creates, even when she bends the rules of fiction, as she did also in her previous novel, How to Be Both (2014).
Smith's book is a kaleidoscope whose suggestive fragments and insights don’t easily render a pleasing pattern, yet it’s compelling in its emotional and historical freight, its humor, and keen sense of creativity and loss.