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For love and language

<strong>The First Person and Other Stories</strong>

Ali Smith <em>Hamish Hamilton, 212pp, £16.99</

"So many pieces of me! I must hold tight," exclaims Edwin Morgan in an epigraph to Ali Smith's witty, disturbing and challenging new collection of short stories. They explore the tricky business of defining the boundaries between the layered, multiple, individual self and other people, a powerful theme in all Smith's work.

The short story is adept at holding tight, suggests Smith, and in the opener, titled "True Short Story", she recounts a conversation, overheard in a cafe, about how the novel is like a "flabby old whore", in contrast to the short story, "a nimble goddess, a slim nymph". What is its value? She invokes the words of Franz Kafka ("A short story is a cage in search of a bird"), Nadine Gordimer ("Short stories are absolutely about the present moment") and William Carlos Wil liams ("The short story, which acts like the flare of a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people's lives").

Having forged a career as a prize-winning short story writer as well as a novelist, with collections including Free Love and Other Stories (1995), Other Stories and Other Stories (1999) and The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003), Smith is demonstratively aware of the potential of the form. "All short stories long", is the pithy opening to "The Third Person". They "long" in the yearning that is distilled throughout them, both sexual and spiritual. The very brevity of the form captures the wistfulness at relationships ending too soon, the joys and agonies of love and love lost, the limits of corporeal existence, the longing to belong in a more permanent state.

What exactly should we long for? Challenges are posed to the characters' desires and values through the clever device of a mysterious strang er, which is also employed in Smith's Whitbread Award-winning novel, The Accidental (2004), and is used compellingly throughout the new collection. There is the strange baby that a lady finds in her shopping basket at a supermarket. The woman takes the baby home, but as its behaviour becomes increasingly odd, she abandons the infant physically - although she cannot do so psychologically, and drives through the night to re trieve it. There is the unwanted parcel that arrives at the house of a couple and contains something sinister, putrid, and which sits on the table between them. There is the child who watches from a tree as a man chases away a cat. "Aw," the child says. This is the most resonant word of the whole collection. It is the sound of sympathy and compassion, a judgement of our behaviour - "the third person is another pair of eyes" - and succeeds in eliciting guilt in the man for shooing away the cat. The device itself challenges insularity, shows how we are complicit in soc iety, just as a word is complicit in a sentence, a paragraph and a story.

The collection is equally about the longing not only for love, but also for language. "I had lost my voice," recalls Smith, detailing her time at Cambridge University. "Two years of a system of hier archies so entrenched that girls and women were still a bit of a novelty to it had somehow knocked what voice I had out of me." She exhibits the process of finding one's voice, and the acts of courage needed to do so. It was at Cambridge that she met Kasia Boddy, and this collection is also about the powers of friendship, a subject similarly grappled with in Like (1997). In Smith's work, there is a constant sparring between silence and speech, lack and fulfilment. The stories are a celebration of "tireless articulacy" - of speaking up in a lecture theatre. That voice might save the world in some small way.

Despite acknowledging the transience, the incompleteness, the dissatisfactions of life, Smith's is still a profoundly optimistic vision. These stories are frightening yet funny, and the sheer exuberance and playfulness of her language endows dark matters with a lightness of touch. In Hotel World (2001), shortlisted for the Orange and Booker Prizes and winner of the Encore Award, the body does not simply die - a heart shatters and consciousness remains, able to analyse itself: "I knew how my heart tasted."

Throughout her writing, Smith acknowledges the capacities for self-renewal and here, in the title story, "The First Person", she explores the possibilities of beginning again - how every new love remakes the world anew. Like all her work, this collection offers a subtle exploration of creativity. She describes a theft as "a piece of artistry so good that the doing of it was invis ible". Ali Smith likewise simultaneously disguises her artistry and brilliantly exposes the processes of artistry itself.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks