Constant readers of Ali Smith will have learnt to expect the unexpected from the Inverness born author nowadays, aware that almost anything she publishes would be difficult to describe as ‘the norm’. Her novels and short story collections were always playful, always explorative and investigatory, but now she seems unwilling to even restrict herself to something that can straightforwardly be explained as a ‘novel’ or a ‘short story collection’. This has been particularly apparent in her three most recent works: Artful, Shire, and How to be Both. The latter has won and been shortlisted for some of the most famous prizes in literature, and almost every one of those would identify it as a novel. But how many other novels would be spilt into two equal parts and published in two editions, each with a different half at the beginning? Even when she is writing a novel, Ali Smith does it differently.
One thing that has tied these last three books together, though, is their shared interest in delving deep into the world of art and picking apart what this three letter word means to people. In Public Library, her latest collection, that investigation continues. This time it is mainly art in the form of literature that is under the microscope. This adds a layer of accessibility to the book, especially when the writers being considered include people like Mansfield, Plath, and Lawrence. While Artful, Shire, and How to be Both looked at artists of all types, they weren’t always people we maybe knew as well as we know these three authors. So, for some readers, that might make it easier to get to the heart of the book.
And, of course, with this being an Ali Smith publication, a simple story collection that looks at the works of some of literature’s greats would not be enough. Woven in between the twelve stories are a series of impassioned pleas for the preservation of our public libraries. We hear from writers such as Jackie Kay, Kamila Shamsie, Kate Atkinson, and Helen Oyeyemi, and each of them gives us a memory of a library that means something to them, a reason that these precious places need preserving. It certainly convinced me, but then I might not have needed that much convincing in the first place.
Any Cop?: The stories themselves do differ in quality. They range from absolute Smith classics like ‘Say I Won’t Be There’, ‘And So On’, and ‘The Human Claim’, to a couple that have moments of magic but don’t quite reach the heights of the others. But they’re still Ali Smith stories, so even when some aren’t as captivating as others, they will still be littered with jaw-dropping sections and sentences that will make your fingers curl. Is it Smith at her blistering best? On occasion, yes. It is.