Magazine article The Spectator

Inspiration from the Past

Magazine article The Spectator

Inspiration from the Past

Article excerpt

Shire by Ali Smith Full Circle Editions, £18, pp. 128, ISBN 9780957152823

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. …

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