Artful by Ali Smith

25th Jan 2013

Artful is the latest genre-bending book by Ali Smith, author of novels including Hotel World, Girl Meets Boy and The Accidental, along with several short story collections.

The Invernessian author is also renowned for her essays and criticism, and Artful combines elements of all the above, defying all conventional categorisation.

Adapted from from Ali Smith’s series of Weidenfeld lectures at Oxford University, Artful is an odd but beautiful book, split into four themed sections; On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer and On Reflection.

Recounted in the first person by a narrator still grieving for a lost lover, Artful explores all sorts of grand themes, including mortality, form, time, love and loss, and the enduring power and impact of art and literature.

The narrator is haunted by this lost love, and that’s not a metaphor. They return, “smudged, matted, torn,” to hang about the house, steal odd items like mugs, remote controls and tweezers, give off a smell so distinct that the neighbours put complaint notes through the narrator’s door, and mumble and fuss about their unfinished work – papers and notes from lectures left behind after their death.

It is these half-finished fictional lectures by the narrator’s dead lover that form the foundation of Artful, as the narrator delves further into them, offering their own observations and interpretations, and making assorted strange discoveries along the way.

If it sounds confusing, at times it is, and on occasion the narrative (if you can call it that) seems to lose its way, but Ali Smith never lets you get entirely lost, even as the narrator starts to question their sanity. Artful is just that – alive with ideas, written in perfect, precise prose.

The narrator is haunted by her lost love, and that's not a metaphor. And while at times it might seem meandering, the numerous asides and anecdotes in Artful are the literary equivalent of the scenic route – you get there in the end, and though it might take more time and maybe even multiple re-reads, the reader ends up far richer for it.

Artful is not a book for everyone. It’s had almost universally rave reviews, but even acclaimed literary critics have found it difficult to describe. But despite its tradition-defying, it remains an enjoyable, emotive and intriguing read; unsettling, innovative, playful, poignant, melancholy and memorable.