Pastoral elegy is not what you expect to find in a collection of short stories, but then Ali Smith is a wonderfully unexpected writer.
In the first story, ‘The Beholder’, which was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award, a patient develops a growth on her chest — ‘woody, dark browny, greeny, sort-of circular, ridged a bit like bark, about the size of a two pence piece’. The doctors are mystified, but a gypsy recognises it as ‘a young licitness’, a pun of mishearing later revealed to be ‘a Young Lycidas’, a rose named after Milton’s pastoral elegy. The rose soon ‘opens into a layering of itself, a dense-packed grandeur that holds until it spills’ — a thing of beauty, conjured in Smith’s dazzling prose, which comforts its beholder in the wake of her father’s death.
The following two stories are loosely fictionalised biographies of the Scottish poet Olive Fraser and the Scottish critic Helena Shire. Again Smith nods to the pastoral, showing Fraser dressed as a shepherdess and glimpsing Nan ‘Shepherd’ in a photograph. These stories are richly populated with literary inspirers, such as Spenser, Keats, Scott, Woolf and Plath — lofty heights to which Smith lifts these two talented women who, in their lifetimes, struggled for recognition from a male establishment. Fraser also suffered poverty and confinement in a mental hospital — problems which seem emblematic of those faced by too many women writers — and yet these stories speak of encouragement, of women supporting each other in a quiet, practical feminism.
The final story is set in ‘a landscape full of birdsong… mirthful and melodious’. It echoes the first with another chest wound, which provokes a metamorphosis: ‘The heat and the glow and the thirst combined and melted the man into someone he’d never been.’
These are stories of transformation, inspiration and of respect for writers who have paved the way, not like the Cambridge college — with its ‘foundation of gold and silver… laid solidly over the wild grasses’, that Virginia Woolf critiques in A Room of One’s Own and which Smith quotes here — but with courage, perseverance, and, above all, precious words.