A prizewinner back home, Scotland-born Smith (stories: Like, 1998) offers a verbally high-speed tale of a girl’s death that may touch some but will seem mainly airy to others. It was shortlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize—as it is now for the Booker.
At 19, Sarah Wilby is a promising competitive swimmer, is newly infatuated with a shopgirl but hasn’t yet said anything, and has a new job as chambermaid at the Global Hotel in a smallish English city. Then, just like that, she winks out. She bets a coworker five quid she can squeeze into a dumbwaiter, does it—and falls from top of hotel to bottom. The remainder of the novel—after a section where dead Sarah herself drifts around to looks things over (“I went to the funeral to see who I’d been”)—consists of chapters, often interior monologue-like, about or by people who were near the scene or connected to Sarah. There’s hotel’s deskgirl, Lise, for example, who later falls deathly ill, but first, deathly bored by her job, derides the hotel’s corporate ownership by giving a room to a homeless person; the homeless person has previously had a long chapter of her own (before you know who she is), as will an utterly ditzy journalist who stays in the hotel and thus meets up not only with the homeless lady but with Sarah’s kid sister Clare (none of us yet knows who she is), who’s come to grieve by prying open the dumbwaiter shaft and having a look down. Etc. The pieces do finally come together, yet all remains oddly mechanical, no matter how many words and pages accumulate, and accumulate, and accumulate. One feels as though Smith were taking as long as possible on as little as possible to make things seem as important as possible. “Lise breathed out. Then she breathed in.” “Outside, in the world, people still walked about and did things. For example, they went shopping.”
Long riffs on a theme, presented like a puzzle.