Year of the Monkey
Patti Smith
Bloomsbury £12.99
Review by Alastair Mabbott

Three weeks after singing in honour of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Stockholm, and the morning after completing a three-night stint at the Fillmore, Patti Smith woke up in the Dream Inn at Santa Cruz and went in search of breakfast.

It was the first day of 2016, the year she would turn 70. Back in San Francisco, her old friend Sandy Pearlman (of Blue Oyster Cult fame) lay comatose after a sudden cerebral haemorrhage. He would cling to life until June. Smith would lose another soulmate of nearly 50 years’ standing in 2016, playwright Sam Shepard. It was a year in which she faced mortality, reconciled herself with loss and took stock of her long journey through life, art, music and poetry, and she began it by opening up a dialogue with the Googie-styled sign above the Dream Inn’s entrance.

Covering just over 12 months of her life, Year of the Monkey is, compared to her previous two books of memoir, almost like an extended lucid dream. Reflecting the insomnia she struggled with at the time, Smith seamlessly blends waking life with dreams, explicitly referencing Alice in Wonderland as she converses with a talking sign and crosses a beach carpeted in candy wrappers. Though she didn’t visit it that year, the red rock of Uluru, and by association the Dreamtime, casts its shadow over the book.

As an elegiac tone settles, the hallucinatory sense of a waking dream recedes, but never fully dies away. Despite her strong network of friends and two grown-up children, Smith cuts a solitary figure, able to drift through the world unnoticed, a rock-star prophetess who blags cross-country lifts and washes her clothes in a hotel sink. Constantly in search of a good coffee, she haunts cafés and falls into an intense discussion about author Robert Bolano with a stranger named Ernest, who improbably crosses her path twice more before the year is out. Ernest may be a figment of her imagination, but there’s no such ambiguity about her heart-rending trips to Kentucky to see Sam Shepard, stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease and close to death. She helps him with his final manuscript, decades of friendship and understanding allowing them to communicate with a glance.

Smith puts as much time and effort into deepening her relationships with the art she loves, carrying around a copiously illustrated book about the Ghent Altarpiece, quoting Marcus Aurelius and Gérard de Nerval and taking the opportunity of a European lecture tour to make a pilgrimage to the preserved home of poet Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon.

As the Trump inauguration takes place, to her clear distaste, Smith reflects on all the deaths behind her, but still can’t shake off the belief that “something wonderful is about to happen”, that the future holds unsuspected epiphanies. Meditative, messy, poignant, deeply personal, allusive, occasionally bombastic and, crucially, still defiant, Year of the Monkey is a mercurial fusion of the mundane and visionary that only an unconquerable spirit like Patti Smith could write.