Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £20
Boundaries and borders are places that Ali Smith has excelled in both depicting and leaping over in short story collections such as Free Love and Other Stories and in her novels Hotel World, The Accidental and There but for the. In her new book – part-essay, part-fiction – she probes the borderline between fiction and fact, between the dead and the living, art and life. “There’s a kind of forbidden magic on the border of things,” Smith writes. Artful transports the reader to this magical terrain, a place in which the tantalising possibility is raised that damage can be healed, that what perishes can be brought back to life.
This slim volume tackles weighty themes: drawn from lectures that Smith gave at Oxford University, the book is organised into four sections: “On Time”, “On Form”, “On Edge” and “On Offer and on Reflection”. She employs the ingenious fictional device of a ghost haunting the narrator, a dead lover who has left behind a series of lectures about art and literature, unsettling in the process ideas of authority, truth and identity.
Some writers of fiction have managed not only to conjure other worlds but have also offered insights into the apparently mysterious process of crafting those alternative realities. One thinks, for instance, of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, which dives into the netherworld of the mind. Smith does the same in this book.
With its blending of criticism and fiction, Artful belongs in a genre of its own. One of its central ideas is that narrative is capable of containing anything – not least unbearable pain. This is a book about mourning: the narrator mourns for her dead lover, trying different ways of coping. She finds the greatest solace in art, in poems and song lyrics that give insight into the nature of loss and make bearable what otherwise would have broken her. (Smith uses song lyrics as section headings and her frame of reference is wide: there are allusions here to Hermes, the Greek god of artfulness, Dickens’s Artful Dodger and Beyoncé.)
This is also a book about wounds. “Time Achilles-heels all wounds,” the narrator recalls her dead lover saying. She wonders how this vulnerable place, or “unprotected heel”, makes itself known. Another running theme is the relationship between language and loss. Smith asks how language might not only express but in some way salvage what has been lost. The absences Smith chronicle range from the loss of life to the loss of a poem in cyberspace (an eventuality treated in Jackie Kay’s poem “http://google.co.uk”, which elucidates the nature of attachment).
Smith also reflects on the possibility of finding a home in language. In “On Form”, she starts by asking what the most suitable structure might be for a story but ends up giving us something altogether more profound – a medi tation on how language can “form a place for you to live”, how rhythm “becomes a kind of dwelling place for us”. She quotes the critic Lorna Sage discussing the peripatetic writer Katherine Mansfield, for whom the short story form was the one place in which she “felt at home . . . being so little at home anywhere else”.
Smith also mines the natural world for imagery. Her lover is reading a book about how certain creatures “made homes for themselves out of whatever they had to hand”. Elsewhere, she writes about “the bacterial kick of life force, something growing out of nothing”, and about how, “Even after the worst storm damage, a tree, so long as there’s some green in the break, can be healed and mended and carry on growing.”
This is a joyful and optimistic paean to the healing powers of art. Smith makes much of a line of Philip Larkin’s: “What will survive of us is love.” She is asking how love might be carried in language and how what is lost can be recovered through the act of “imaginative involvement”. Artful is an invitation to “make use of short daylight”, as Mansfield once wrote. It will be entertaining reading for anyone interested in the art of writing, and also of living, well.