Magazine article The Spectator

'Some Luck', by Jane Smiley - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Some Luck', by Jane Smiley - Review

Article excerpt

Some Luck Jane Smiley

Mantle, pp.395, £18.99, ISBN: 9781447275596

We live in a world in which nuance is trampled on and cannot survive. Is that true? I don't know. But the further point is, must authors now preface their novels with introductory letters, in which they carefully explain the central themes of their work? Epistolary prefaces in general are not remotely new: you often find editors and publicists addressing readers with disinterested solicitude. ('We care about you dear reader and only want the best for you, Buy this book').

Of course, Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of such novels as A Thousand Acres and The Greenlanders , is entitled to communicate with the reader in any way she likes. Yet, in turn, the reader might baulk just slightly at being told that 'writing this novel and the two that will follow has been a pleasure and a revelation,' or that 'it thrills me to give them to you'.

Smiley also explains that Some Luck is the first volume in a trilogy called 'The Last Hundred Years', following a family from 1920 to 2020. She was inspired, she adds, by the question of 'who becomes a legend and who becomes a monster?' and 'who disappears entirely?'

Despite such prompts, I was drawn instead to ideas of consciousness and time. Smiley's characters live in days, as we all must. They also live in Iowa, but that isn't as important; external descriptions are subjugated to the ebb and flow of inner thought. Time conveys the characters onwards, remorselessly, and so does the structure of the book, which proceeds in an orderly fashion, a year per chapter, in this volume from 1920 to 1953.

With such ritual chronology Smiley flouts a few once-avant-garde-now-mainstream modernist conventions. And that's fine, of course. Though we may encompass millennia in a single thought, we also exist, ineluctably within linear time. We amass years; we grow old. 'Successive nights, like rolling waves/ Convey them quickly, who are bound for death,' as George Herbert wrote, like an Elizabethan goth.

Smiley explores the fortunes of the Langdon family, living on their farm in the prairies, surrounded by wind-lashed locals of German and Scandinavian descent. The narrator is omniscient and vaguely agitated, fluttering constantly from one mind to another -- from inchoate children to jaded adults. …

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