At lunch one day while I was browsing through books at Clerkenwell Tales my eye was caught by a very attractive small book called 'Shire'. When I saw it was written by Ali Smith I immediately bought a copy as a present for my friend as her birthday was soon. However, I only just recently got a copy for myself. I'd been greatly anticipating reading it as it's a book of four new stories, the first story 'the beholder' I had heard Smith read at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year. It's a really heartfelt and funny story about someone who discovers that she's slowly turning into a tree. She has numerous problems in her life, but these become superseded by the beauty that's growing within her. The next two stories are half-fiction half-tribute to individuals. 'the poet' gives an account of the life of Olive Fraser, a Scottish poet who published a scattering of things throughout her life, but never came to great prominence as she was plagued by illness and financial troubles as Smith bluntly lists: “Bad headaches. Grey skin. Nosebleeds. Concentration lapses. Unexplained illness. Fatigue. Drifts from job to job.” Smith creates a story around this of the poet as a girl discovering music in the binding of a book she throws against a wall. 'the commission' is a much more overtly person story than I'm used to reading from Smith. Here she pays details her mentorship from a scholar named Helena Shire. The academic supports Smith during her time at university by giving her money as well as talking to her about literature and ideas. The story travels back and forth throughout scenes in Smith's life showing her development and how Helena helped shape the person she's become. The final story is a short piece called 'the wound' which relates directly to an anecdote in Smith's previous book Artful where she discusses art as an exchange that “can be a complex and wounding matter” and cites as an example a poem from the late 1500s. In this poem and Smith's story a man borrows mischievous Cupid's wings and bow and arrow. He flies up into the air filled with jubilation but accidentally shoots himself. This parable shows how art and love can transmogrify the individual by causing pain and through that pain understand the world and other people all the greater.
Like much of Smith's work Shire doesn't fit into a neat classification as it is at once literary fiction, biography, theory, philosophy and memoir. What carries us through all this fascinatingly varied terrain is Smith's engaging and innovative voice. Other authors' writing would probably become scattered and confused trying to handle so many subjects, but Smith masterfully carries us through her narratives making every story she touches upon immediate and moving. I'm continuously in awe of her daring and powerful ability to make meaningful connections.