Books: Little Red Riding Hood's all grown up

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The Independent Culture
Other Stories and other stories

by Ali Smith

Granta pounds 9.99

Ali Smith's second short story collection is prefaced by Grace Paley's words: "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." The epigraph resonates throughout the tales which themselves relate a journey in a Blakean vein, from innocence to experience. Like Alice Thompson, Ali Smith eschews complex plots and rounded characters. Instead, through pared down prose her tales uncover some essence of truth without recourse to overt didacticism.

Smith's first novel Like and her previous short story collection Free Love demonstrate a mischievous disregard for readers' expectations, a characteristic evident here. In "Blank Card", anonymously sent flowers spark curiosity then passion between two lovers who invent playful vignettes of disguised identity which explore the erotic potential of the imagination.

On the surface, the tales appear disparate, but on deeper consideration, there are myriad connections. "The theme is power" opens up like a Russian doll to reveal tales within tales. The first episode echoes Red Riding Hood and is firmly rooted in time and place: the year is 1979, the location Trafalgar Square. A headscarfed woman approaches two young Scots girls who trust her sufficiently to share the details of their lives. Gradually however they perceive her to be a malevolent force. In allegorical terms, she represents the negativity associated with the Thatcher age, luring the girls, aptly enough, with the promise of consumerist riches. Apparently Red Riding Hood, all grown up and at full tilt, perpetuates the sins of the wolf. But then with Ali Smith, matters aren't always what they seem.

"Kasia's Mother's Mother's Story" marks a small departure, featuring as it does a character who inspires immediate empathy. Caught in an apparent war situation, at the outset Kasia appears devoutly religious, a piety she instils in her daughters. It emerges gradually however that Kasia's religiosity is a survival strategy. She mimics the churchgoers' rituals and steals a plain wooden crucifix to display in her home: as visible to the outsider as to her family within. Kasia trusts no one. Not even the kindly old woman who shares their block. She burns their personal belongings, believing these actions will save their lives.

She recollects a previous life as her thoughts return to her childhood and the memory of some Chekhov stories gifted by her father. She recalls the family home which is described in terms of a voyeur peering through a window. The lack of historical setting becomes clear, emphasising as it does history's cyclical nature and the similarity of Kasia's plight to that of her own mother and her grandmother before.

In practical terms, she believes the cross enables her to leave her own daughters in safety to search for food. Whether she believes its religious significance is a matter sidestepped by the narrator who stresses instead the human need to believe. Despite their current circumstances, whether the next generation perpetuates the mistakes of the previous ones is a matter for them to decide. From the political climate of the 1980s characterised by the loss of society and the associated desire for extreme consumerism, and Kasia's rootless frugal existence here, the hope is that her own daughters can invent a new model. The message contained in the idealistic epigraph is no substitute for more practical strategies of intervention by both men and women, personal responsibility and mutual trust.