A young British author self-consciously seasons stories of love and abandonment with sometimes awkward touches of the gothic, surreal, and mythic.
Though an imaginative and original talent who can write as evocatively of managing a fast-food restaurant as of a tree in blossom, Smith (the prizewinning novel Hotel World, 2002) makes attempts at a Celtic sort of magic realism that often seem strained and dated. Of the twelve stories in this second collection (after Free Love, not reviewed), “May” is perhaps the most surreal as a young woman, after seeing a neighbor’s tree in full bloom, falls obsessively in love with it. The apple tree in “Erosive,” covered with aphids, preoccupies the narrator, who, struck by a sudden light from above, is in love with the sky, with a young woman, even with the aphids. In “The Universal Story,” one of the most fully realized, Smith deftly makes connections between a fly in a bookstore window, the store’s owner, and a customer traveling round the country buying up used copies of The Great Gatsby for his sister: an artist, she’s planning to build a boat from the books. Dressed in a business suit, Death (in “Being Quick”) mingles with the rush hour crowd on a station platform and is recognized by the homeward bound narrator, whose cell phone goes dead: her commute becomes a strangely sinister odyssey while her anxious lover waits for her. Some of the tales are set in Smith’s native Scotland. Two women and a young girl (in “Paradise”) share a house on the shore of Loch Ness in a story that includes not only the mythical monster but haunted graveyards that recall an armed robbery, tourists encountered on a local cruise ship, and a vandalizing sharpshooter. “Scottish Love Songs” introduces Violet, a confused old woman who once visited Niagara Falls but now lives in a house haunted by “a pipe band in full regalia” playing “always the same tune. The whole house shook with it.”
Clever, stylish, and smooth in prose, but too cool to engage.