Book review / Ash and the lava louts

LIKE by Ali Smith, Virago pounds 12.99

Effervescent, endearing, seemingly impervious Kate, a seven-year- old changeling who cracks terrible jokes, is the magnifying-glass and driving force in this engaging debut novel. Each element in it works to bring out the resonances of the word "like": what's it "like" to live in other people's shoes? Or sexuality? Are any two people really "alike"? And what happens if the object of your affection refuses to play your games?

The story is told in two halves: the first from the point of view of Amy Shone, the second, from that of Ash, her childhood friend. The characters dwell in the present tense, a sometimes confusing but effective device. Several versions run simultaneously on the fault-line of time, each layer of reality claiming to be the definitive blueprint.

Amy and Kate Shone are, on the face of it, a mother-and-daughter act who come from nowhere and settle nowhere, a postmodern free-floating family unit. "This is the best kind of town. Trains don't always stop here," says Amy of her Scottish hideaway. What is she running from? In the second half of the novel, it is easy to empathise with Ash, terminally thwarted in getting to grips with the real Amy, yearning for possession.

Images of definition are everywhere, from the screwed-down room plaque in Amy's childhood home to the eternally static figures at Pompeii. She recoils in disgust at stasis: "Think of that. Nothing but the empty shells of you left, nothing but the air where you were. The shape you made last, by chance, the shape you'll end up keeping." There is a brooding terror of being tracked down: "I have left all the clues. I have left my prints at the scene of the crime, and now I have practically handed myself over. And there's nothing. No hand on the shoulder to say no, or stop, or caught in the act. Nothing but empty middle-class plot, middle-class dilemma."

Seven-year-old Kate, alternately childish and ancient, yearns after permanence. She makes her own home, a hiding place on the beach. She nags Amy to tell stories, and she makes up her own. Ingeniously, her own version of events is often told in the third person, as if her immature sense of self lacks assertion. Her childish fantasies are direct and engaging: "Kate likes to stand in the book section at the back of the newsagent's shop, where you can smell the paper of the pages of the thick paperbacks. She thinks it might be nice to be locked in overnight at the newsagent's."

This experimental, fragmented novel frolics with delight in language. Kate loves indulging in wordplay, rolling syllables around on her tongue and inventing apposite epithets (such as "Lava louts" - her tag for the mountain-climbers on Vesuvius). But one is constantly aware of the vacuum into which the words are poured. The book's final verdict seems to be that there is never one way of telling the whole story, or describing what it's really "like".

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