Five stories about five women associated with a hotel, all linked by a death, the first story being told by the ghost of the dead girl.
Is Ali Smith the most experimental mainstream novelist of this generation? Tales told by dead people is not especially different (other examples include The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders) ) She plays with words and sentence structures and paragraphs to create texture for her tales. Thus, the first story starts:
More than this, Smith drills down into everyday life for her stories. She doesn't need exciting plots. We learn, in their own words, about the dead girl, about a homeless woman begging on the streets, about a receptionist who is off work through illness, about a superbly superficial and self-satisfied journalist, and about a punctuation-light school-girl and each of these pen portraits keep the reader interested through the twin techniques of revealing only just enough to make the reader have to work at piecing the jigsaw together and of total immersion in character. Thus the result is readable as well as being intelligent.
Some great moments:
- "Beautiful dirt, grey and vintage, the grime left by life, sticking to the bony roof of a mouth and tasting of next to nothing, which is always better than nothing." (Past)
- "Now that I can't just reach out and touch, it's all I want, is to." (Past)
- "Happy is what you realize you are a fraction of a second before it's too late." (Past)
- "Who needs one pence? Fucking nobody who is anybody. That's quite funny, the idea of fucking a nobody, just a space there where a body might be, and yourself flailing backwards and forwards against the thin air." (Present Historic)
- "So many of the things on the street were close to people, intimate with them, even inside their mouths, before they ended up here." (Present Historic)
- "That was the last time that my heart flew, and it flew inside me like a trapped bird, a blackbird caught in a living-room battering itself about above meaningless furniture." (Future Conditional)
- "Lines were edging themselves into her face as she looked at her." (Future Conditional)
- "It's not that the council doesn't put a lot of money and effort into arts and things, the whole town's full of sculptures and murals, you walk through the pedestrianized area and you literally keep bumping into civic art. But, to be brutally honest, I can't sat it's made any difference whatsoever." (Perfect)
- "We all know our dates of birth but ... every year there is another date that we pass over without knowing what it is but it is just as important it is the other date the death date." (Future in the past)
- "When he used to sit in the garden with his chest bare in the sun it was all loose folds round his neck & face like he was too small for his skin now it was folding in on him" (Future in the past)
Top quality fiction from a maestro. June 2021; 237 pages
Other novels by Ali Smith reviewed in this blog
- Artful: a sort of novel mixed with literary critique
- How to be both: a novel in two parts, either of which can be read first
- Autumn and Winter, part of a series which continued with Spring and Summer, yet to be enjoyed
- There But for The: full of word play
- The Accidental: I am rather embarrassed by my lacklustre review of this, the first Smith book I read. I don't think I then understood how brilliant she was. I must re-read and rewrite.