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.