Full Circle Editions, £18. Order for £15 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Book review: Shire, By Ali Smith (images by Sarah Wood)
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Wednesday 10 July 2013
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.
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Three-year-old boy shoots pregnant mother and father in New Mexico
- 2 Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
- 3 Jewish community urged to boycott Cornwall village after residents vote for 'Hitlers Walk' sign to be reinstated
- 4 Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
- 5 Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing gay-rights campaign snubbed by Prince William and Kate Middleton
Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
As Better Call Saul launches, here are the other spin-off shows we need to see
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
President Putin is a dangerous psychopath - reason is not going to work with him
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign