Reviewed by Simon Thomas
Emma Smith, who wrote novels, short stories, and children’s books throughout the second half of the 20th century, has had a resurgence of fame in her 80s and 90s. Even better, it is not simply through the republishing of her books, but with new work – specifically the glorious childhood memoir The Great Western Beach. That took her childhood in Newquay only up to early childhood; in As Green As Grass she picks up where she left off, examining (as the subtitle notes) ‘growing up before, during, and after the Second World War’.
Having held centre stage in Newquay, the Hallsmith family (for at the beginning of this memoir Emma Smith is still Elspeth Hallsmith) have to start again as nobodies in a place that glories in the name ‘Crapstone’. But, for Emma/Elspeth and her sister, the excitement is that they will get to go to a proper school (her older brother is already at one). She doesn’t write all that much about school, but it will ring resoundingly true for anybody who worked hard and (as a consequence) wasn’t the most popular person in the class…
Their childhood takes something of a turn at a crisis point when Smith’s father leaves. This incident is preceded by a curious one where Smith finds her mother wandering outside in a daze (which is never really explained). Her tempestuous, self-important, paranoid father has abandoned them, in the most quiet and uneventful manner imaginable.
“But won’t he miss us, Mummy?” I ask her, feeling guilty at the immensity of my relief. “Won’t he feel lonely, all on his own?”
My mother tells me I’m not to worry. She herself sounds perfectly serene. What has happened is, of course, very sad, but it may perhaps turn out, in the end, for the best. Poor Daddy may really, she says, be happier living alone, without the nuisance of a wife and four children to get in his way and interfere with the painting he likes to do in his spare time.
He reappears, spectrally, a few times in the book – occasionally through well-meaning attempts at reconciliation on the parts of people who don’t know the situation well – but is a ghost of his former self which, however difficult, certainly showed vitality. It is clear that he is depressive, although that does not paint the whole picture – and nor does Smith dig very deep into a prognosis. That is part of the childlike way in which she portrays childhood (when it suits her, at least!)
This was a feature of The Great Western Beach too. Smith’s style is seldom childlike, but her persona is; as though she were looking back on the instances from no great distance. This evaporates (unsurprisingly) as she gets older, but at the beginning the narrator feigns ignorance of sex, the adult psyche, subtexts of most varieties etc. I couldn’t decide (in The Great Western Beach) whether it was effective or irritating. I still haven’t quite decided; it is a little frustrating not to say twee. But it is a small stumbling block.
During the Second World War, Smith (like so many) is forced to grow up quickly. Anybody who has read her memoir/novel about working on the canals during wartime (in Maidens’ Trip) will find much that is familiar in the middle section. In that book, she condensed many crew members and journeys into one crew and one journey; here we get all of them individually. There is an amusing set of characters, particularly the ones entirely ill-suited to the canal boat life (including one who abandons them mid-journey, and later – inexplicably – heads up the organisational committee for all canal workers).
There ends up being something of a bidding war to publish Smith’s account of her canal activities – the book that would become Maidens’ Trip – and her longterm ambition to be a published writer takes off with unexpected success. A subsequent, fairly spontaneous, professional assignment to India inspired Smith to write the novel The Far Cry (republished by Persephone Books a few years ago) and it seemed as though her writing would never end… but she immediately hit writer’s block. It turned out that she could only create a believable narrative (fiction or non-fiction) if it were directly related to a real-life adventure or experience of some variety. Yet trying to manufacture these proved equally fruitless.
I don’t know what happened between the 1950s and the 2000s (besides a brief marriage that ended tragically, which is touched on towards the end of As Green As Grass) but I do know that Smith has finally discovered the great experience to write about. That experience was, simply, her life. Whether writing about moments of great drama (her father leaving), unusual experience (the war), or simply the mundane (school, work), she weaves a story that captivates and amuses.
It is unlikely to the point of impossibility that the dialogue she writes could have been remembered correctly over the course of 60 or 70 years, but that is scarcely the point. The combination of her naïve narrative persona, her evolving character, and the nostalgic author whose voice appears occasionally, make As Green As Grass a delight and a treat. It is not a cosy read, particularly, but it is certainly a fascinating one.
Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and managed to flood the boat on his two canal holidays.
Emma Smith, As Green As Grass (London, Bloomsbury, 2013 repr.2014), ISBN 978-1408835630 pbk., 320pp.