The First Person and other stories, By Ali Smith

A brilliant collection of stories from magical Ali
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The Independent Culture

A woman is kissed unexpectedly and "expertly" in broad daylight by a woman she hardly knows. The consequences are profound: "When I got home that night my 14-year-old self was roaming about in my house knocking into things, wild-eyed and unpredictable."

"Writ" is a surreal short story documenting one woman's attempt to talk to the girl she was three decades before. Their conversation charts her attempt to gain approval from the sulky teen and justify her present life with her earlier aspirations. Aware that her child-self must learn by her own mistakes, the woman restrains herself from advising the girl about the future: from worrying about her very ill mother – who will recover; from realising that she likes girls as well as boys. "It's okay. It's good. It works out very well," she wants to say, but she keeps her silence. Alive with tension, "Writ" addresses one of Smith's preoccupations, how to revisit and write the past. This lies at the heart of her latest short story collection.

In a tour de force of multiple voices – numerous histories – The First Person celebrates the act of story-telling as a way to keep hold of, and use, the past as a lens through which to view the here and now. This is underlined by the teasing tone Smith adopts to blur different cultures into one outstanding whole.

"Fidelio and Bess" is a masterpiece. Here, Beethoven's opera Fidelio is fused with Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, a work exploring African-American life in 1920s South Carolina. Lyrics and characters from both operas are intertwined within a contemporary story in which a woman comes to terms with a failing love affair. The fissures in their relationship are epitomised in the different ways they view art. Her female lover insists that culture "works" precisely because it is immutable; the narrator will have none of it. To her lover's insistence that "you can't just revise things for your own pleasure or whatever," she replies, "Actually, I can do anything I like."

So can Ali Smith. She has crafted a set of short stories that work together to create a brilliant and thought-provoking collection. The First Person is the essence of "pleasure or whatever".

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