What I’m Reading: Ali Smith – Like

Continuing my project of reading all of Ali Smith’s books in order of publication, this is her first novel. I will try not to gush too much during the rest of this post, but it is going to be hard, because Like is an astonishing debut novel and a wonderful read, and Ali Smith is very fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary authors.

The back cover of my edition has only some very vague general information on the novel and tells nothing about plot or characters, and in consequence I had no idea what to expect when I started it, which made for an interesting – and quite different – reading experience. And, in this case at least, a very apt one, too, as Like plays to some degree with reader expectations; so while I usually do not care very much, it turned out quite fortuitous that I went into this novel un-spoiled.

Like basically contains two tales, told by different narrators, narrators who like each other and who in some respects are like each other (while being very different in others) – the novel explores the full range of meanings and implications of this seemingly innocuous word, something I am starting to think of as characteristic for Ali Smith’s fiction – just like her predilection for puns, which already can be found in great variety and abundance in this debut novel. (“Shopping centaur”!) During the first narrator’s tale (taking up roughly the first half of the novel) the reader of course does not yet know about this bipartition, but there are many clues scattered about that hint at mysterious events in the narrator’s past, and a girl she apparently used to be in some way involved with.

That girl then turns out to be narrator of Like’s second half. Her tale is mostly retrospective, telling about her past and her relationship with the first narrator. Her looking back takes place in a clearly described present (while she is visiting with her father), however, and I doubt there is a single reader going into Like unprepared who does not expect the novel’s strands to merge in some way, the two narrators to meet again. But of course (“of course” in retrospect, of course) this does not happen, there is no reunion, tearful or otherwise, but instead the lives of the two narrators, after having intersected for a while in the past, continue to move apart. Or maybe a better to but it would be that they move side by side, as Ali Smith weaves a tight net of thematic similarities and shared imagery not just between present and past, but also between the narrators, showing how their separate lives have become suffused with their relationship, even where they are not aware of it.

Also, and again thwarting reader expectations, there are quite a few things left unexplained in this novel; the first part in particular introduces several mysteries that the second emphatically does not resolve in any manner. Although I will have to add here that I might simply have missed some clues – this being the downside of not knowing anything about the novel beforehand: I just did not know what to look out for (which is also the reason why – in most cases – I do not mind spoilers all that much: a spoiled reader is a more attentive reader). I will find out once I get around to re-reading Like which I am quite confident I will eventually do – once I have read all of Ali Smith’s other works, of course.

Like does not read like a first novel at all, neither is it clumsy and awkward, nor is its author over-eager to show off her skills (considerable as they are). This is a very un-ostentatious novel that for all its quietude and unassuming habitus runs a lot of risks and navigates them all, resulting in a novel that is both challenging to the reader’s intellect and deeply moving – there is a strong undertow of emotions pulling at the reader that is all the more powerful for not being obvious but spreading its influence below an apparently still surface. I’ll glady repeat myself and say again that Like is a wonderful novel and Ali Smith a marvellous writer.

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