Fans of Ali Smith'sHotel World will like this latest collection of short stories, especially as the opening pages sound just the same. Hotel World thrust its main protagonist, a dead chambermaid, on to the page with a self-conscious "Here's the story; it starts at the end." The Whole Story also begins by putting its characters through their creative writing paces: "There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no, okay, it wasn't always a man; in this particular case it was a woman..."
The quirky voices of Hotel World; the repetitive lists of sounds, feelings, actions; the focused, inner perspective; the zooming in on tiny details; the meandering off at a tangent - all these features crop up again in this book. Is Smith trying to say something about the circularity of narrative? Is she deliberately trying to tell the same story over and over again?
These are not meant to be facetious questions. The Whole Story, as a collection, doubles back on itself, picking up the threads of a character's life that a self-contained short story has tied up into a sturdy knot. The final story, "the start of things", is a continuation of the third one, "being quick", where one half of a couple (gender is never revealed) is delayed on his/her journey home to the loved one concerned. In the final story, the couple are rowing, and that night is recalled: "Remember the time you didn't come all night, I say, the time I hadn't a clue where you were and I thought you were dead?"
Telling stories, in Smith's worlds, is our way of preserving ourselves, arming ourselves against death and obliteration. Repetition is one way of doing that, and Smith isn't frightened to embrace it. What fascinates us, Smith rightly points out, are the trivial details of a story, details that make it seem true, that make it come alive. In "believe me", a couple make up stories about themselves, creating fictions that lead to love-making, the final assurance that they are as alive as the stories they have been telling: "because I can read you like a book and because the thing about a beloved book, if it's a good one, is that it shifts like music; you think you know it... but then you hear... the thing you never heard in it before...".
Hotel World was an extremely good book, well beloved. The Whole Story is a good collection, and will be loved by many. It retraces its predecessor's lines, after all, echoes its tunes. But that "thing you haven't heard in it before" is perhaps a little elusive.