The First Person and Other Short Stories

The First Person and Other Short Stories reads the title of Ali Smith’s latest work. What does that mean: “Other Short Stories”? Is it one of those books: an assortment of several stories  joined at the spine by little more than an editor’s taste or an author’s name? Or is it what we can term ‘a collection’, a rather more complex creature that exists not only of an assortment  of self contained narratives but also as a larger entity comprised of common themes and motifs: a duality of independence and interplay.

 

Despite their ambiguities, Smith’s stories certainly function as solo narratives but do they have the relationship between themselves  that is required for a work to become a collection. On the most basic level, it certainly seems so : “Writ” “The History of History” and “The Child”, for example, all examine ideas of maternal responsibility, expectation, childhood. Each of those is linked to a number of other stories by other recurring tropes and there is a mesh of common themes that runs throughout the work. A great collection however,  juxtaposes its stories as much as it joins them. For example, despite both portraying  the common theme of inverted expectation, the horror the reader experiences in “The Child”  is quite different from the sad, empathatic concern when have for the mother in “The History of History”

 

Yet, having read “The History of History”, does the reader, as unimaginable as it would have been in their initial reading, not find themselves feeling a little sorry for the baby in “The Child”? Do they not pity the baby, who has been passed from mother to mother, unlikely to ever find a home? The rejection of a child by its mother is incredibly powerful device, and Smith uses it to subvert the mother’s moral integrity, to cast . It is the sign of a great writer and a great collection when themes are allowed to bleed into one another.

 

Don’t despair if this is sounding like the standard fare of lifeless highbrow literature- all technical experimentation and little entertainment –  because there is a great deal of artistry in The First Person […] too.  The stories sparkle and shimmer in their own right as compelling narratives: Smith’s canny use of ambiguity leaves the reader hungrily turning the pages, eager to unwrap the next snack sized piece of mystery. Who sent that mysterious package? Is that woman still trapped in the stairwell? These questions linger impishly in the air, long after the book is closed and will lead the reader back again and again. Complimenting these compelling narrative are the themes that hang in light web above them, apparent but unenforced. It is to Smith’s great credit that that The First Person […] is more than just a set of polemics dully illustrated ith flat, archetypical characters. Instead she has spun a collection of stories that dance as beautifully alone and unanalysed as they do together.


May 27, 2018

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