Fiction & Biography
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The Whole Story and Other Stories (l 1.1me llan‘illun 'z‘ii) (fr’i. Q...
How shall I begin this review of a book of short stories by Ali Smith? I could start by writing it in a similar style to the one she uses. I will do that for a bit, then after a while, I’ll say some other things about the book and eventually bring the review to the end. Then I’ll put my name in brackets.
I don’t know if stories have fourth walls like they do in the theatre, but Ali Smith doesn’t believe in them. She has a playful way of addressing the reader directly, upending expectations of what ‘proper’ writing should be and then sucking us into her bittersweet, funny-sad tales all the same. You’d call it postmodern if it wasn't so unstudied, chatty and amusing.
There are 12 stories, one for each month of the year. I don’t know if you need to know that. I mean, the weather and the light and the blossom on the trees play their part, but it’s not a meteorological diary or anything. Plus chapter four is called ‘May’ and you’d think that should have been chapter five.
The writing on the back of the book says that these
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Absorb yourself in Ali Smith’s tales of the unexpected
are ‘stories for people who‘ve grown up being told time is running out: and don't want it to be‘. I‘m afraid I don’t know what that means. I’d have said something like ‘these are stories about ordinary people with ordinary vulnerabilities, people who are fascinated and absorbed by life's smallest details‘.
Sometimes you think they might be mentally ill. such as the woman who falls in love with a tree, the old lady who hears a band of bagpipers all around her house and the woman who thinks she has seen death. But Smith tells her tales so matter-of-factly that these characters seem not mad, but simply more alive to the world’s peculiar possibilities. Why shouldn‘t you fall in love with a tree, you end up thinking.
At times the stories are very funny. Take the opening one: ‘The Universal Story’. It tells the tale of a second- hand book from the point of view of everyone in the shop; including the fly in the window. Later. there are the three women who turn up drunk to midnight mass and unthinkingly start smoking.
But even when she’s not being Iaugh-out-loud funny, Smith always has a comedian’s sense of surprise, twisting her tales in unexpected directions, pushing the possibilities of the short story and delighting us. (Mark Fisher)
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