Book review: Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm

Some Luck

by Jane Smiley



Try to pin down Jane Smiley at your peril: she has written a campus novel ( Moo), a 14th-century historical saga ( The Greenlanders), and about the world of breeders and racetracks ( Horse Heaven). Her Pulitzer Prize winner A Thousand Acres is a Midwestern story that is also a retelling of King Lear; her Hollywood-set comedy of manners Ten Days in the Hills is modelled on The Decameron. Alongside her 14 novels are several works of non-fiction and books for young adults.

What fuels this insatiable restlessness, and does anything connect a body of work that seems, on the face of it, so disparate? Two answers: a curiosity and a deep preoccupation with the variety of ways narrative can simultaneously accommodate individual and group lives. Smiley has shown no great fondness for the miniature; no willingness to be confined to a particular period, or location, or way of writing, although the last could perhaps (albeit reductively) be described as realist storytelling.

It is storytelling in expansive mode, and perhaps more in evidence than ever in Some Luck, the first of a projected trilogy called "The Last Hundred Years". In this opening volume, we follow the story of the Langdons, an Iowan farming family, from 1920 to 1953, with a chapter for each year, a period that takes us from the aftermath of the first world war via the Depression and the second world war to the era of the atomic bomb.

The extent to which each of these vast events is elaborated depends principally on the novel's shifting point of view: we might witness an effect of the Depression, for example, in the offstage story of a hold-up in town; or be brought as closely to conflict as the oldest Langdon son, Frank, who becomes an army sniper. And then there are things we never really know much about at all.

The story begins in 1920, as Walter Langdon surveys his land, while his wife, Rosanna, keeps an eye on baby Frank, the first of five children. For Walter, the farm represents his safe return from France, and separation from his own family, achievement and potential; for Frank, it is the vivid, fragmented apprehension of the world, of porch and cat and grass and road and corn, "and around that, a different thing, empty, flat, and large, the thing that lay over all things".

There is plenty in the rolling narrative, from dramatic childbirths to meandering romances, from long lives to unexpected deaths, all set against the gradual encroachment of modernity. Change makes itself felt first in concrete developments - the tractor replaces the horse, the electric light in place of the kerosene lamp - and later in the challenge it poses to family stability, and not just for those who choose to leave.

Some Luck is not simply an observation of family life and the pressures it is naturally susceptible to; it is also a dissection of the idea of family, and of the truths its facade will shield from view.

Guardian News & Media