Ali Smith - The First Person and Other Stories (3 stars)

Ali Smith - The First Person and Other Stories

(Hamish Hamilton)


In this, her fourth collection of short stories, Ali Smith sets out her philosophical stall as quickly as she can. Her opening tale, ‘True Short Story’, ponders the very nature of the form itself as two men debate the merits of the novel against the short story, overheard by a narrator who has lost her ‘voice’, ending in a string of quotes from writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges and Alice Munro, all revealing what the short story means to them.

The First Person and Other Stories is not so much a collection of shorts, as a gathering up of ideas concerning the soul of this literary genre and a forensic analysis of putting such mini-novellas together. In several of the dozen pieces, there are alternative stories being told: long-distance memories, secret histories, a meeting between a woman and her 14-year-old self, and tales of people stuck in the snow or trapped between walls which could easily cross into urban myth territory. There are also some distinct stories (Porgy and Bess, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots) recalled which drive on a main narrative while ‘Astute Fiery Luxurious’ concludes with a series of multiple endings about how to dispose of a suspect package.

These are all cunning and engrossing conceits but disappointingly, given her track record, the Smithian wit and emotional thrust are often absent, though the scientifically precise drawing of character is as potent as ever. A semi-triumphant dissertation on the mini-story form.


1. The Blunderbuss15 Jun 2009, 4:15pm3 stars Ali Smith - The First Person and Other Stories Report

I've enjoyed Ali Smith's stories in the past. She writes with a light touch, clarity and a sometimes idiosyncratic approach to syntax (which can be annoying at times). This collection however was, for the most part, baffling, and the reason why short story collections are so unpopular with readers who have no literary academic background (like me).

Finishing almost every story I was left thoroughly dissatisfied and confused. Experimentation for experimentation's sake might impress a few highbrow Guardian readers, but I'd imagine most people would be left feeling thoroughly short-changed after this.

I think 'Free Love', an earlier book, is a much better, more accessible collection.

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