Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

"Other Stories and other stories" by Ali Smith (Penguin, 2004)

First published in 1999, this book has stories each containing smaller stories. The narrative/imagery patterns can sometimes appear somewhat gimmicky, the characters leaving no mark in the big world, affecting one other person, if that. She uses "you" more than many other people do, often in the first sentence. Her scene shifts are sometimes never explained, or explained unconvincingly, or retrospectively. I came to identify the symbolism that would recur, distinguishing it from the incidental, "reality effect" detail. In the summaries below I'll try to pick out the pivotal imagery.

  • "god's gift" begins "There are so many things that you don't know about me now". Who is "you" - the reader? The main character's back from a short holiday alone in Greece. A cat's been bringing her birds, dead or dying. "Whichever cat it is it is clearly deeply in love with me". She leaves a wounded bird on a sill. We read that "The first girl I ever fell in love with put a bird in my bed". In Greece a waiter (god's gift?) tried to pick her up. She went off with the female cook, was sick in her sink. Near the end of the story the "you" returns - "I'm dying, you said to me once, one time when you were feeling sick". Then we read that "I know every day, every hour is a gift". At the end she goes to check the fledgling. "I will look down, and it will be there. Or I will look down and it'll be gone.//It will be dead// It will have flown".
  • "the hanging girl" begins "They're going to hang me". The girl's first person voice blends with that of a reality show compere. Then there's a 3rd person section. Pauline has an invisible friend who hangs herself. Mike, her partner, does what he can. There are detailed asides

    • He ... pictured himself instead, driving along the motorway under turn-off signs and signs flashing warnings about fog, driving fast along boring country lanes and slowing as he came into a village, past a sign about old people crossing, a sign about a hump-backed bridge, a narrowing of the road, a sharp bend, a sign saying keep your distance, p.29
    • Inside his mouth he could feel his tongue, rooted to him like a thick-stemmed plant. It was moving. It touched against the soft flesh of the walls of his mouth, p.32
    1st person and 3rd person sections alternate. Pauline lies down on lawns, in churches, gets her friend down from the lamppost she's hung herself from and invites her home. She's about 12 and hangs from various locations around the house. At the end, when Pauline jumps from her garage roof, hundreds of her imaginary friend's friends have turned up to watch.
  • In "blank card" a women receives a bunch of flowers with a blank card. The intrigue leads to good sex with her partner. "I slipped my hand down inside your opened jeans, watching myself slipping my hand down inside your opened jeans" (p.44). At the end she orders flowers with a blank card for her partner. We're led to believe that she ordered herself the first bunch and that the partner might wrongly guess who sent the second bunch.
  • In "more than one story" (which begins langourously with "It is a Wednesday, half day, early afternoon just after lunch") a man in a summer-house sees a girl sun-bathing topless. This reminds him that his bother was run over and killed at her age, and that he was seduced by a girl (Olive, from the Anchor) in a shed on a cold day. The PoV changes to the girl who recalls being seduced by Sharon Neil, who offered to give her driving lessons. At the end the man and the girl exchange pleasantries as they pass, the girl not hearing the man say "Hopefully be another sunny one tomorrow".
  • "Virtual" - a girl visiting an aunt in hospital sees an anorexic girl opposite. She overfeeds her aunt's fish and wonders how she could tempt the girl to eat. The girl has a virtual Japanese pet because she can't bring her cat into hospital. At home the main character says "I thought about getting a cat. Then I thought about maybe getting some fish and a tank".
  • "okay so far" begins "We have come a long way". A couple are on a long train ride across the USA. They speculate on the circumstances of a little girl, seemingly alone. One of the couple, the narrator, recalls nearly falling from a car which her father was driving. The other tells about a caravan holiday with her parents. After talking to a couple whose daughter had died young, her parents bought her an expensive bucket and spade.
  • "miracle survivors": a tramp who'd survived under a snowdrift becomes a minor celebrity, predicting the nurses' futures. The scene changes - on New Years Eve two girls break into a shop on a station platform.
  • "the theme is power" begins "The thing is, I really need you with me in this story. But you're not home". We told about 2 girls on their way home to Scotland from Paris. They stop in London, are invited to a flat. They later believe it was a trap and that the bus they later catch was followed by the same people. 6 pages in we told "So that's the first part of the story", then "The other thing is, my father is here visiting. I forgot to tell you. He's why I began thinking about all this". After an anecdote we're told "I don't know if I've ever told you this story about my father before". The narrator told her father about a flasher. Her father caught him. Later we're told "I turn round. You're not there. I knew that. There's no one here, just me, and my father breathing next door". Near the end "You came home half an hour after I finished the dishes". At the end, in bed with "you" asleep beside her, she imagines pleasant versions of her memories, thinks about who to trust. "That's the story finished, that's all there is to it."
  • "instructions for pictures of heaven" begins in the second person with a girl wondering about words and faces and what you can infer from them. Without warning the scene changes. Gayle (maybe the girl in the first scene) is helping an old woman, Margie, to clear her house. On the way home "In her head the old lady's face shifts and changes. Her house changes. The smell goes, the dirt goes, the town and time change, and Gayle is looking up at her grandmother, who is dead. But this is a long time before she died, and they are in the white-tiled bathroom in the new council house" - another scene change. Then we flip back. Then we have "1: Women at Work in Jam Factory, circa 1948", the first of 16 photo captions. Some captions have associated text about Margie. Finally, in a section entitled "Instructions for pictures of heaven" we're told how a photographer faked pictures, adding anonymous faces to portraits. I like how the final section affects the earlier parts
  • "kasia's mother's mother's story" - a mother leaves her daughters in order to pray. She steals a cross from the church, hoping it will help. They are poor. In the past it seems that the mother had burnt the family's identification papers.
  • "a story of love" accentuates the story-making theme of the collection. It begins "Tell me a story, I said". Several stories are told, e.g. - "Here goes. There was once a girl etc dog. She really really wanted a dog. But she never did get one. The end." and "There was once, I said, a story that was told by way of other stories. The end."

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