Anyone who enjoyed Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both, with its charmingly loopy monologue of an Italian Renaissance painter prattling away to us through one of the book’s famously interchangeable halves, will be glad to see her new book of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). It looks reassuringly similar: white hardback;
photograph of two contemporary studenty people on the jacket; large font-size; non-justified lines; no quotation marks for dialogue.
Here we are again reading Smith’s deliberately childlike prose. It’s not just the lack of quotation marks that makes it seem so — although this does have that same endearing Young Visiters effect — but also her use of extra-long and extra-short sentences, and her guileless barging into domestic situations. It’s a pleasure to read, because she writes gabbling sentences others wouldn’t allow themselves to write, such as, ‘It all really makes me think of the thing she says where she says…’
But these stories are a notch higher on the loopiness scale than How to be Both. I forgave the weirdness when it came from the voice of a Renaissance painter, but here it is all the author’s, and she goes a bit far. The oddest things happen: a branch grows out of someone’s bosom; someone else has a recurring dream about Dusty Springfield; and another meditates on the etymology of the word ‘buxom’ while trying to rescue a woman in a wheelchair who is stuck on a train being shunted into a siding.
Each story is interspersed with an elegiac short section in italics, quoting writers extolling the joys of public libraries. These are refreshing sorbets between courses. You keep reading the stories, because beneath all the battiness is Smith’s warm-hearted wisdom.
Nicholas Shakespeare’s Stories from Other Places (Harvill Secker, £16.99)