There must have been rejoicing in the House of Virago when they got their hands on Ali Smith’s novel, as Like embraces many of the subjects they hold dear – Sapphic love, single parenthood, anti-Thatcher politics and Scottishness. It is the story of Dr Amy Shone, a brilliant scholar and Fellow of Cambridge University and Ash McCarthy, a Scottish wild child, who falls in love with her. Smith approaches the heart of her story with great caution, edging in stealthily, building up a picture of each girl’s childhood, using first Amy’s voice and then Ash’s. She begins at the end with a bleak presentation of the somewhat weird life that Amy now lives. She has a little girl, Kate, nearly eight (how Kate came to be is not explained, not worth mentioning probably, because it must have had something to do with a man), and they live in the Highlands, in a caravan on a site Amy is paid to caretake. Kate is an endearing child, imaginative and quirky and Smith expresses Kate ‘s hopes, fears and preoccupations with affection and an accuracy which only occasionally slips. Her mother makes up stories to entertain her daughter. I recognised one of these ‘made up’ stories, having read Two Monsters by David McKee to my small boys at bedtime.
By now it will be clear that I only quite liked Like and yet there is much to be said in Smith’s favour. You have to be clever to write about someone else being brilliant and she does this with fluency, touching on many erudite subjects, gliding from Aristotle to E M Forster, and inserting here a Greek myth, there an explanation of the geographical structure of a volcano. If the stream- of-consciousness style occasionally degenerates into nonsense – ‘Nothing can mean something, something can mean nothing .. . ‘ – well, I blame her editor for not keeping a tighter hold over the length of this novel. You get the feeling that Smith has poured all the thoughts she ever had in here and then filled up the left-over spaces with the literary equivalent of Polyfilla: a recipe for mince, the entire contents of a day’s newspaper and fantasies about sexual encounters that have not happened.
Smith handles her characters more dexterously, and although Amy is a somewhat shadowy figure, this is because she is the elusive, adored one, impossible to really know. She certainly does not seem so loveable, being slightly priggish and once refusing to speak to her friend for a month because the girl had said Virginia Woolf’s novel’s were boring and were ‘nowhere near what’s real for most people’. Ash McCarthy, however, is a wonderful creation – boyish, exuberant and funny. Her mother died of cancer very young and she has twin older brothers and a father. The portrayal of the old dad is one of the sweetest achievements in this book. Watching him peg out some clothes on one of those new whirly washing lines, the peg bag hanging from a belt loop in his trousers, Ash thinks: ‘I don’t know what I’d do without my dad, I really don’t.’
Smith has written a collection of short stories and this is her first novel. Given the doomed nature of the love story, it is perhaps inevitable that the tone of the writing has an elegiac, haunting quality. There are enjoyable moments, and Smith’s relish for language is captivating at times. She has a fondness for the silly pun: a shopping centre that is half shops, half horses is a ‘shopping centaur’. She talks of emotions recollected on tranquillisers and she exercises admirable control over the complicated structure of her book.
Like so many before her, Smith intends to illuminate the nature of love. Mount Vesuvius, murderous, destructive, but with a smouldering heart, symbolises the course of Amy and Ash’s sad passion. When Ash is finally driven to destroy, fire is her weapon of choice. Wild, proud and savage, she seeks the brief illumination and then the cold emptiness the flames will create. The meaning of Like remains somewhat obscure, but Ali Smith allows us to poke among the dust and ashes and find an atom of hope still glinting. It is a little charred, perhaps, but just about fit for service in the fight against gloom and despair.