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.
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.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove