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Saturday, 9 July 2011
by Jane Smiley
I have been a huge fan of Jane Smiley since "A Thousand Acres," her novel based on King Lear published in 1991. That novel stayed in my mind as one of my favourites for a long time, although I didn't read much of her other work, until I stumbled upon "Moo", in the late 90's. Then I lost track of her until she came out with the marvelously useful, honest, funny and erudite "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel", which grew out of her sudden inability to write novels after years and years of work. In that book she uses her block to read 100 of the best novels ever written, review them and try to discover why, for her, some of them work and some don't. Jane Smiley is a stubborn and creative problem-solver after my own heart, so when I read that she had published a new novel, I bought it and placed it on the very top of my tbr pile.
"Private Life" is wonderful. As a story, it is quiet, truthful, straight-forward, moving. As a piece of fiction, it is inspirational. A small, ordinary life is set against the epic sweeps of early 20th Century history. But in Smiley's hands, the small becomes crucial and the epic secondary. On the cover, under the title, the publishers (I assume) have written "Marriage can sometimes be the loneliest place". Yes, "Private Life" is about a woman lost in a passionless marriage to a self-absorbed, misguided though well-meaning man. But it is about much more than just that. It is about choosing to adapt -- or not -- when the world goes crazy. It is about the role of friendship. It is about choosing to know yourself or not. Choosing to be true to yourself, or not. Choosing and the consequences of those choices.
From the viewpoint of technique, it is a masterclass. How to have your character speak a dialogue about one thing while thinking something completely different at the same time....how to find the appropriate narrative voice.....using third person narrative and still getting into all the characters' heads....how to portray the passage of time without leaving your reader to wonder where it all went. Plus, there's more than a smattering of cosmology and the evolution of scientific thought.
"Private Life" is an extraordinarily generous book. Smiley is an extraordinarily generous writer. If you don't know her work, it's high time you did. Buy this book.
Reviewed by Sue Guiney
Sue is the author of 'A Clash Of Innocents', 'Tangled Roots', 'Her Life Collected' and 'Dreams of May'.
She is published by Ward Wood, and you can find out more about her here and on her website.
You can read Sue's blog here.
My review of 'A Clash Of Innocents', which is one of the best books I've read in recent years, is here. And you can read a review of 'Tangled Roots' here.