Across the Page: The First Person, The Sky Below, and Observations

 
 

This month’s Across the Page features two noteworthy new
releases — Ali Smith’s short story collection The
First Person
and Stacy D’Erasmo’s novel The
Sky Below
— and Jane Harris’s Victorian mystery The Observations.

The First Person by Ali Smith (Pantheon)

Ali Smith’s new collection, The First Person, includes twelve unique stories that meditate on
the act of storytelling. Five of the stories here are connected and feature an
on again/ off again relationship between two unnamed women — “Fidelio and Bess,”
“No Exit,” “The Second Person,” “Astute Fiery Luxurious,” and the tender and
ultimately redeeming title story, “The First Person.”

The five stories are narrated by one of the women and
addressed to the other — or, simply, “you.” The second-person point of view is as
direct as it is intimate. Though there
is no clear narrative arc, each story reveals a different stage in the women’s
relationship.

In “Last Exit,” the narrator calls the “you” in the middle
of the night to tell her that she’s worried about a woman she saw earlier that
evening at the cinema. The woman, she explains, left through a side door that
looks misleadingly like an exit but actually leads nowhere.

Her anxiety is obviously metaphoric. The narrator knows
about this door because she and “you” once went behind it to make out — “Don’t
you remember?” she asks you and, again, you fail her: “You don’t remember us calling it the fire
excite on the way home. You don’t
remember anything.”

Throughout the five stories, both women tell each other
anecdotes and stories as a way to understand how the relationship
dissolved — and, more importantly, why they even care. The other stories in the
collection are also about storytelling and myth.

In “The Child,” a woman finds an “embarrassingly beautiful
child” in her cart at the grocery store.
Everyone around her assumes the baby is hers and after failing to
explain she finally leaves with him.

Once the woman and the baby get into her car, he begins to
berate her and releases a tirade against anyone who is not
white/straight/Christian. When she’s
offended, he accuses her of being too politically correct. The baby is full of contradiction — beautiful,
arrogant and helpless — which makes their exchange all the more bizarre and
enlightening.

In perhaps my favorite story from the collection, “Whit,”
Smith takes the idea of storytelling even further when the narrator returns
home to find her fourteen-year-old self sitting at the table. The narrator considers giving her adolescent
self advice to help her survive the next couple of difficult years, but
ultimately decides that these are all moments she needs to experience on her
own.

Throughout the conversation, the woman is thinking about a
recent kiss she had with a woman lover and it seems that it is this, above all,
that she wants to show the insolent teenager: it’s okay, it will all work out.

Each story in this collection captures Smith’s ingenious and
absolutely enthralling voice. A highly
recommended read.

The Sky Below by Stacy D’Erasmo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Stacy D’Erasmo’s third book, The Sky Below, is a story of transformation. The novel opens with Gabriel Collins (Gabe)
as a dreamy young boy who would rather decorate the Christmas tree with his
ballerina mother than play ball with his father.

Gabe is both fascinated by and terrified of the myths his
mother reads to him from Ovid, but he is forced to grow up and face his own
difficult reality when his father walks out on the family. He imagines that his
father always had another family and has now finally picked them over Gabe and
his mother and quirky sister.

Eventually the family moves to Brewster, a shabby town down
south in Florida
where Gabe’s mother gets work managing a motel.
But Gabe never really recovers from the upheaval. Instead, he plots to return the family to
their beautiful home in Massachusetts
by making money selling drugs, prostitution and sneaking into his neighbor’s
unlocked front doors to steal odds and ends that he collects in boxes under his
bed.

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