Review of Ali Smith's book: Public Library and Other Stories, published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton at £16.99.

AS SOMEONE who has recently forked out the eye-watering sum of £27.40 in library fines, there was a certain amount of guilt-assuagement involved in the process of reviewing a book entitled Public Library. Unlikely as this anecdote may make it appear, I am a sincere believer in the importance of public libraries, in spite of my grievous maltreatment of their services; it is just that somewhere between the ages of 14 and 22, I seem to have forgotten how to use them.

And I am by no means alone. Ali Smith’s most recent collection of short stories could not be more topical as society faces the very real prospect of losing this indispensable service. But Public Library is more than just a platform for singing the praises of a grossly undervalued and alarmingly endangered public facility; it is an exploration of the effects and impressions of books in all their forms upon the people who read them.

There is a freshness to Smith’s prose that renders her characters vividly but unobtrusively alive, almost to the point that we overlook the craft which created them: they are simply people speaking. I say almost, because at times this nonchalance has the tendency to become a little over-emphasised, a little too knowing, with the danger of inadvertently revealing a rather self-satisfied author pulling the strings. However, for the most part Smith negotiates this effortlessly and at times the balancing act even fuels her writing, as characters shrewdly reflect on their own writing, and the lines between what is anecdote and what imagination, what is reality and what fiction (for anyone who was wondering, Olive Fraser was a real poet) become deliciously indistinct.

Perhaps surprisingly however, the unifying feature of this collection is arguably not Smith’s writing at all, but the memories of, ruminations on, and stories about public libraries from various contributors that are interwoven with her own fictions throughout. Smith’s narrative voice is so distinctive that it is refreshing to shift between her fictional creations and personal contemplations, and this collective Library Chorus amassed from members of the public. These are the stories which hold the fabric of the collection together through the enduring universality at the heart of such highly personal experiences.

Through these various strangers, friends and correspondents, as well as her own experiences both real and imaginary, Smith has transformed her text into her own Public Library – a collective storehouse of reading experiences housed within the pages of a book that, with any luck, will itself eventually find its way onto the shelves of yet a another library, whether personal or public. And, to conclude my own library story, I console myself with the thought that my £27.40, even if it was more than the books themselves were worth, is at least a small contribution towards providing a local library with some much needed funding (but in future I intend to return my books on time, or else buy them to begin with).

by Ruth Hobley