The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith ****
Merely to be a gushing Ali Smith fangirly, I thought that I would begin this review by saying that it is really cool to open a library book written by someone so prolific and to see ‘local author’ scrawled on the front page. If you had not guessed from this, I adore Smith’s quirky writing and creative stories, and she is certainly one of my favourite authors.
Before I begin each one of Smith’s short story collections, I know that I will very much enjoy every single tale which has been included within its pages, often for very different reasons. As I very much – and rather predictably – loved or very much enjoyed every story in The Whole Story and Other Stories, I thought that I would jot down a few thoughts about each story, and the reasons as to why I liked them so much.
– ‘The Universal Story’: I loved the conversational stream-of-consciousness style; the way in which Smith describes how one can adore books and the promise of treasures in secondhand bookshops; one man’s admiration for The Great Gatsby, and the collection of copies of the novel.
– ‘Gothic’: the personification of personality traits; the growth of the story’s protagonist.
– ‘Being Quick’: the use of the reader as a character of sorts; the use of two different first person narrators; the fact that the couple who feature as the protagonists are nameless.
– ‘May’: an original idea; I have read this story several times before and still find its beauty striking.
– ‘Paradise’: the use of very long but perfectly constructed sentences; the imagery which Smith builds.
– ‘Erosive’: the sheer number of characters and the way in which they were introduced so seamlessly.
– ‘The Book Club’: the structure, which cleverly told both a present day story and a backstory.
– ‘Believe Me’: the skill and tightness of the conversation between the protagonists.
– ‘Scottish Love Songs’: the very contemporary style of the prose.
– ‘The Shortlist Season’: thoughtful and urgent.
– ‘The Start of Things’: the dual perspective of the same event.
Please, if you have not done so before, go and pick up one of Ali Smith’s books. Whether you read a novel, a short story collection or a work of non-fiction, she is a novelist who is well worth discovering.
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Mary by Vladimir Nabokov **
Another book which I borrowed from the lovely Cambridge Central Library, determined as I am to really enjoy at least one of Vladimir Nabokov’s books. I decided upon borrowing it that if Mary, like Speak, Memory and Lolita, was a three star read or below, I would not go out of my way to read any more of Nabokov’s books. Surprise, surprise then, that Mary was only worthy of a two star review in my opinion.
I had no idea what the novel was about when I first picked it up, but I believed that as the work had been translated in collaboration with the author, it would at least be relatively true to the original. The novel begins in Berlin, in a pension which was ‘both Russian and nasty’, and which hosts inhabitants as diverse as a Russian poet and two ballet dancers who are ‘both as giggly as women’. Mary, the titular character, is the wife of Aleksey Alfyorov. As I have found before with his work, the way in which Nabokov crafts his prose is lovely, but the conversations between his characters often feel stiff, awkward and unnatural. The descriptions throughout are neither as grand, nor as frequent as they are in Lolita, and the characters never quite cross the line into feeling like real, rather than imagined, beings. Like Lolita, the novel is almost entirely fixated upon relationships, sexual desire, and frustration. The story did not grip me at first, and whilst it does become marginally more interesting as one reaches the halfway point or so, it soon becomes a little dull again. The uneven plot and abrupt ending have not allowed me to award Mary more than two stars, and on reflection, I feel that even that is a little generous.
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami ****
I have wanted to read this novel for about five years, ever since one of the rather beautiful quotes from it was acted out as an audition piece on drama school-based ‘Nearly Famous’, one of my favourite television programmes. Sputnik Sweetheart follows three characters: aspiring novelist Sumire, Miu – the woman whom Sumire surprises herself by falling in love with – and K, our male narrator. A love triangle of sorts soon ensues; K is in love with Sumire, two years his junior, and Sumire treats him more like a friend and almost prophetic teacher than as someone whom she is interested in.
The one problem which I tend to have with translated Japanese fiction is that the conversations can sometimes feel a little lacklustre and void of emotion. I’m not really sure why this tends to happen (can anyone enlighten me?), but the problem is sadly present in Sputnik Sweetheart. In the grand scheme of things however, the prose was often so lovely that the conversational patterns were somewhat outweighed. Sputnik Sweetheart was not at all as I had expected it to be, but it was both engaging and compelling, and twists and turns were taken which made it an intriguing work of mystery. The three protagonists were all well developed and believably constructed, and I now want to read more of Murakami’s work. I shall leave you with this beautiful quote, which I hope will encourage everyone who has not done so already to pick up this peculiar but memorable novel:
“And it came to me then. That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.”