Friday 1 December 2023

Forgotten Book - A Grave Affair

I've been a fan of Shelley Smith for many years but it's only recently that I got round to reading her penultimate book. A Grave Affair, which dates from 1971. One of the reasons why she was such an admirable writer is that she avoided repeating herself and this book is unorthodox and interesting. Those stern critics Barzun and Taylor admired it.

The blurb quotes the author's views: 'We like to think of ourselves as small independent units consisting of our families and friends, living our private lives as if they had no connection with anyone else. But that is not so at all. An invisible network connects each of us with everyone else, seen or unseen, known or unknown.' The events in this novel are designed to illustrate exactly what she means.

This sounds rather didactic, but it isn't. Rather, Smith shows us the perspectives of a wide range of very different individuals, while focusing on the misadventures of a politician called Edmund Burke (why she chose that famous name, I've no idea - I find it rather odd). There are some curious infelicities, notably when she switches viewpoint within a short scene, and I didn't find her portrayal of a libel trial particularly credible. Her decision to use elements of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was very bold, but although aspects of it are very dated, the sad truth is that conflict over Palestine remains a recurrent theme in modern life.

So this isn't a perfect book, but ambitious novels never are. I found it extremely readable and interesting as well as pleasingly unpredictable. My copy was inscribed by the author 'To Sister Duncan...from her grateful patient' and I do wonder if health problems explain why she only wrote three novels in the space of more than twenty years after a flurry of early successes. Whatever the reason, it's a pity there aren't more Shelley Smiths. The novels she published are invariably worth reading.   

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