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Review: Shire, By Ali Smith, with images by Sarah Wood

Bewitching, at least three times over

The epigraph that opens Ali Smith's new collection of writing is from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, in which she wrote about an imaginary sister of Shakespeare who died young, her talents frustrated: “For great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.” It is a neat summary of Smith's extraordinarily generous collection – I call it “writing” because the book seamlessly fuses fiction, myth, biography and poetry – in which language is a cord that links writers across generations and pays tribute to them.

This little book comprises four beautifully distilled “stories”. The first, “The beholder”, is the deadpan, first-person recollection of a woman who has grown a rose bush from her chest. It turns out to be a Young Lycidas variety, named for the tragic shepherd in an elegy by Milton, who was “a great maker-up of words”, including “fragrance”, “lovelorn” and “gloom”. It is a perfectly condensed little gem of a story, which in 23 pages offers a lesson in horticulture, a history of poetry, a snook at medical terminology (the woman is referred to clinics including Oncology, Ontology, Etymology and Tautology) and a satisfying tale of how a woman learns to make the most of “any shit that comes my way”. Also, it is almost entirely true: the Young Lycidas, for example, is right there on Google.

For readers who need to know which bits are true, the following two pieces are confusing. “The poet” is about the Scottish poet Olive Fraser, who “really could, as a girl, hang from the parapet of a Nairn bridge by her arms”, though “the story about her finding the music in the spines of the books is made up by me”. It is a lovely story. “The commission” is about Smith's long-ago encounter with the academic Helena Mennie Shire, who edited a collection of Fraser's poems. It contains gossip: Sylvia Plath “wasn't well liked, a Newnham porter once told me shaking his head, it was the sex”, and a fascinating recollection of being patronised on Radio 4 by a “TV executive” (whose name is also easily Googled).

You will want to read this book at least three times: once in a headlong rush of fandom; then with an internet connection and a dictionary of poetic terms; and finally in a darkened room with the phone switched off and time to savour Smith's delicious, playful use of language.

A truly bewitching collection.

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