An engaging collection of stories that explore how people are connected by words, ideas, events, and memories and, not coincidentally, how those connections may be lost when public libraries are closed.
Scottish writer Smith (How to Be Both, 2014, etc.) notes that U.K. budget cuts threaten to close as many as 1,000 public libraries. She describes her latest book as one “that celebrates the communal impact on us of books and of reading.” That is clearly the case in the italicized sections between the stories, in which writers and others say what public libraries have meant to them. The thematic resonance of the stories is subtler. The opener, “Last,” observes a handicapped woman accidentally trapped on a train through the eyes of a narrator whose mind wanders to the etymologies of “buxom,” “stamina,” “clue,” and other words, to thoughts of her childhood and pressing many-leaved clovers in a book. Allusive, indirect, and only superficially conclusive, the story conveys an affection for and playfulness with language that reappears elsewhere. A disturbing photo of military executions seems to be the focal point of “Good Voice,” where personal history elides into the world’s through a book. The story dances from Fred Astaire to a child’s nightmares, German exchange students, and the many words a reader underlined in a book of first world war poetry. One story segues from thoughts of D.H. Lawrence to a credit-card dispute and back to the writer. “The Ex-Wife,” probably the best of the collection, has the narrator trying to cope with an ex-wife’s love of books but then getting caught up in the writing of Katherine Mansfield and coming to appreciate both women more.
Smith’s casual, almost conversational style and structure don’t produce conventional short stories, but there’s an enticing intellect at work, and the accompanying threnody for lost libraries is sadly complementary.