Public Library and other stories
Ali Smith has elsewhere called public libraries ‘division melting places’, and in Public Library And Other Stories she shows that the work of books, communities and shared civic spaces is to gleefully break down boundaries. With her stories – none actually named after or set in a public library – Smith draws an animated map of biographical fragments, writings and quotes ranging wildly across virtual and physical spaces, times and artefacts. In ‘The Beholders’, a charming tale of a woman who becomes fused with a tree-growth, the invented vocabulary of John Milton – fragrance, gloom, lovelorn, padlock – wars with the rushed sentiment of medical language: ‘Results, hospital, inconclusive, the voice said. Urgent, immediate, straight away.’ In ‘Good voice’, a chatty dead father insists that his daughter include her own childhood story in the conceptual, grandiose history she wants to tell about the First World War; the story is equally haunted by a photograph of a WWI execution squad and a volume of collected Wilfred Owen poetry.
The remains of dead writers are continually bursting in throughout the text. Literary legacies are invoked alongside nosy biographical – and tangible – tidbits: we are left with speculations that DH Lawrence’s ashes may be floating anonymously around the sea, and that melted-down filmstrips of Katherine Mansfield may have been used to coat the wings of airplanes that fly above us. For the most part, the stories show Smith at her best: a healthy fascination with double-entendres, misunderstandings, döppelgangers and distant lives meets smart, sophisticated and kind narration. Interspersed between the stories, however, are short reflections by others (mainly writers, librarians) on the importance of the library system. These are motivated by a fierce defence of the written word. Yet the pieces frequently fall flat; the worst coming off as a well-meaning tally of important civic values reminiscent of a school project or funding application. Smith’s stories, in their imaginative fight against the limiting of language, are a far more compelling defence.
Words: Gillian Moore