Book review: Shire, By Ali Smith (images by Sarah Wood)


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The Independent Culture

Shire begins with a surreal story about the shattering – and transformative – effects of grief, in which a woman has lost her husband, lover and job in quick succession. She is simultaneously plagued, and purified, by a bodily growth for which doctors can find no cure. It is a variety of rose bush which just keeps on growing and which brings with it a collision of melancholia, intellectual questing and bathetic humour that streaks across Smith's best work.

The "Lycidas" that has taken root in the protagonist's body is, we learn, named after Milton's pastoral elegy. The fascination of poetry caught in this captivating story re-emerges in this small, delightful book, alongside profound questions of life and death – from the losses suffered in life to how the dead can continue to live on the page.

Three subsequent essays-cum-stories probe these themes, blending biographies with Smith's own life – her departure from her home in Inverness, her arrival at Cambridge University – as well as poetry, fiction and fleeting literary analysis (A Room of One's Own, Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses).

Smith's previous book, Artful, similarly scrambled fact with academic essay and fiction. It had its centre the absent presence of the late Greek actress Aliki Vougiouklaki, whose charisma was captured on the page and yet remained elusive. Here, Smith's subjects are closer to home: a Scottish poet, Olive Fraser, and a Cambridge academic, Helena Shire, a "spry-looking elderly lady" who edited Fraser's poems. They are described through the chronology of their careers, anecdotes and their impact on Smith's life.

Yet there is also an undermining of hard facts in these obituaries: Fraser breaks the spine of a book – Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe – to discover scrolls of music tucked in between, only for Smith to tell us some pages later that "the story… is made up by me". Later, Smith remembers how Shire sent her cheques as a student in order to support her, though by now we cannot be sure if this is true, or even if truth matters.

For new readers, Shire might be a puzzle, open-ended and wavering between genres, but for the initiated, that is entirely the point, and the joy, of Smith's work.