Book review: Shire

Author Ali Smith. Picture: submitted
Author Ali Smith. Picture: submitted
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THERE are writers you read and those you re-read. Ali Smith is among the latter, repaying scrutiny. She writes scrupulously, with devotion to her craft.

Read Text For The Day from her first collection of stories, Free Love. Read it aloud. Technically simple, it spirals upwards, soaring effortlessly, then descends, attaining a state of suspended beauty. In Shire she achieves this condition twice, in The Commission and The Poet, pieces braced in the heart of the book by a pair of shorter stories – The Wound and The Beholder.

The Beholder is a story marking affliction and transcendence. Its narrator, who has a breathing disorder, discovers a rose growing out of her chest. Her life is enhanced, her fecundity cherished, and the tale ends in an echo of Text For The Day, with a branching and blossoming of its own.

The collection’s last story, The Wound, follows the hero of a 16th century poem as he journeys from bliss to a fall, incurring a chest wound, self-inflicted, when he borrows Cupid’s arrows. The hero is doomed. Then something miraculous occurs and the story ends with a clunk.

These bookend tales are a quirky diversion. The two central stories are the real deal – combining poetry, prose, biography, autobiography, scholarly musing, linguistic juggling and micro-attention to detail.

Reading them is like sticking your hand down a sofa. You might prick your finger. You might find gold. They share the key figures of Olive Fraser and Helena Mennie, both Cambridge graduates, both Scots, both devoted to literature (Fraser, the poet, raised in Nairnshire; Mennie, the scholar). The two become friends. On her marriage, Mennie’s surname changes to Shire.

Ali Smith shares shires with both of them, being raised in Inverness-shire, and later educated at Aberdeen and Cambridge. She paints Fraser’s life in blood and marrow, the bitter-sweet childhood, the mental anguish of her middle years. Smith, from the window of her kitchen in Inverness could see the asylum where Fraser was held. Neither was aware of the other’s existence, a distance apart.

That distance dissolves in The Commission. Smith, Shire and Fraser come together. Shire, who edited Fraser’s poems, encounters Smith in Cambridge. They take to each other, their intellects and affinities bound together by Olive Fraser and other Scots writers. Shire is affectionately generous, Smith, her appreciative beneficiary, binds their sorority, making Shire and Fraser this posthumous gift of prose, a tribute interweaving reverence and homage. One of the finest things she has written. n

Tom Adair