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Shire, by Ali Smith

review published on September 11, 2013. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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Shire is the newest offering from surely one of our most original contemporary authors, Ali Smith. In these four short stories -‘The beholder’, ‘The poet’, ‘The commission’ and ‘The wound’ – she ‘pays tribute to the sources, the people and the places which produce and nurture life and art’. Throughout, she also draws parallels and similarities between her native Scotland, and Cambridge, the city in which she now lives. The divide between the north and south has been both drawn and erased in this collection, and Smith also places much focus upon ‘poetry and the creative process’ and the ideas of ‘death and renewal’. The entire volume has been beautifully produced, and is accompanied by a lovely series of Sarah Wood’s photographs and illustrations.

Smith has used many different sources as her inspiration for these tales, ranging from a modern myth with an ‘hallucinatory quality’ and a memoriam of two Scottish poets, to an autobiographical meeting with the influential Helena Mennie Shire, a Cambridge University professor. It is perhaps easiest to write about these stories in entirely separate sections, as whilst they do share a common style, the thoughts and subject matter which they deal with can vary greatly from one to the next.

Let us begin, therefore, with ‘The beholder’. In this story, Smith has managed to inject original details into the mundane. The unnamed protagonist is visiting her doctor with regard to a breathing difficulty. When asked how her life is, she informs him: ‘… well, my dad died and my siblings went mad and we’ve all stopped speaking to each other and my ex-partner is sueing me for half the value of everything I own and I got redundant and about a month ago my next door neighbour bought a drum kit, but other than that, just, you know, the usual’. Just a little further on in the story, the narrator returns to the doctor’s surgery with a most unusual complaint – ‘little stubby branch things’ have begun to grow out of her chest. Later, she describes the way in which ‘the whole rich tangled mass of me swung and shifted and shivered every serrated edge of its hundreds of perfect green new leaves’. This is, on the face of it, an incredibly simple story, but Smith’s inventiveness and her execution of it shines. She has stuffed it to the brim with magical realism whilst also commenting on the human condition and the way in which humans can unite with the world around them.

The second story, ‘The poet’, which follows Olive Fraser, begins in the following way: ‘So she’d taken the book and she’d thrown it across the room and when it hit the wall then fell to the floor with its pages open it nearly broke, which was one of the worst things you could do, maybe a worse thing even than saying a blasphemous curse’. The narrative of this story includes some Scottish dialect – for example, ‘it wasn’t grammatical or real Latin like’, ‘the water had darkened his good trews’, ‘He was too feart even to try’ and ‘time meant a lot more than the face of a wee gold watch, aye’ – which reinforces some of the scenes. In this particular tale, the stream of consciousness style is so beautifully written that the reader cannot help but be dragged into the story. Smith’s admiration of Fraser shines through on every page, and she has created rather a delightful memoriam in consequence.

‘The commission’ is an interesting biographical essay of sorts, detailing what it was like to be a postgraduate student at Cambridge University. Smith states that she applied to Newnham College only so that she could ‘get a book grant’ whilst she was there. In ‘The wound’, nature is prominent from the first richly written page: ‘Look at the dew, so twinklingly like diamonds on every twirl of foliage; look at the flowers falling over themselves to bloom’. This story is a literary criticism of sorts, an interesting and well done reimagining of a poem by Alexander Montgomerie.

Shire is a clever, astute and rather accomplished volume, which blends together seamlessly despite its disparities with regard to genres and subject matter. It is sure to delight every existing fan of Smith’s work, and would serve as a wonderful introduction for any newcomers to her writing.

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