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Book review: Public Library and Other Stories, by Ali Smith.

Public library and other stories, by Ali Smith. Photo: Supplied
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PUBLIC LIBRARY AND OTHER STORIES.

By Ali Smith.

Hamish Hamilton.

$32.99.

Award-winning British author Ali Smith frames her latest collection of short stories around the crisis of the public library system in Britain. Smith writes: “The statistics suggest that by the time this book is published there will be 1000 fewer libraries in the UK than there were at the time I began writing the first of the stories.” A recent statistical review revealed that there are now 14 million fewer books in British public libraries since the Conservatives took power in 2010.

While only one of the 12 stories directly refers to a library, each one is buttressed by short essays or poems contributed by leading authors like Kate Atkinson and Jackie Kay which stress the importance of libraries, a space where both the advantaged and disadvantaged can access information and culture.

Smith mixes fact and fiction in many of the stories . Smith’s opening piece, Library, which is printed with the title crossed out, documents a visit that Smith and her editor made to a building near Covent Garden, which formerly had been a library and now has transformed into a luxury private members club, although the receptionist proclaims, “We do some books as a feature”.

Smith weaves real characters, such as Virginia Woolf, Wilfred Owen and Katherine Mansfield, into her stories, who interact with her contemporary fictional characters. Many stories reflect on death and the loss of family, a reflection perhaps on the death of the familial library.

In The Ex-Wife, Katherine Mansfield is the third party in a marriage break-up, as one partner’s obsession with Mansfield, her life and her writings, causes unreconcilable tensions. Another juxtaposition of past and present comes in The Human Claim, which begins with Smith following the fate of the ashes of D. H. Lawrence but then soon refocuses around Smith’s frustrations in dealing with soulless call centres. Smith, a victim of a credit-card fraud, must grapple with the “matey automatons” of Lufthansa and Barclays Bank, although during her virtual peregrinations she takes comfort in arriving at Harmondsworth, the home of her beloved Penguin paperbacks.

The increasing lack of societal personal contact is physically embodied in Last when a wheelchair-bound woman is left locked in a railway carriage in a siding. In that context, Smith and her fellow writers would extrapolate that the physical library as a community resource is essential in a world of disembodied internet access and faceless bureaucracies.

Do buy this book, but, if not, recommend its purchase by your local library. In Australia, you probably have a better chance of success than in Britain.

Colin Steele is a Canberra reviewer.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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