‘The Child’

first person

Reviewing collections of short stories is a difficult art. You may love one, then find the next rather dull. The more similarities, the easier to discuss, but doesn’t that make the collection as a whole less interesting? Above all, you will be unlikely to be able to examine any of the stories in detail. So instead of attempting a review of Ali Smith’s latest collection, I intend to simply discuss one of the stories, ‘The Child’. It is, of course, my favourite, but it also highlights one of the advantages the short story can have over the novel: the ability to develop the surreal.

The story begins in a deliberately ordinary manner:

“I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff.”

Notice the emphasis on routine and the intentionally vague “stuff” – too banal to merit further description. However, this is simply to provide a credible background to the first unusual event, the appearance of a child in the narrator’s shopping trolley. Here Smith’s descriptive powers come into full force on the basis that the more unlikely something is, the more the reader needs to picture it – and, as this story rests entirely on the child, we are treated to an extensive portrait:

“The child in it was blond and curly-haired, very fair-skinned and flushed, big-cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel on a Christmas card or a child out of an old-fashioned English children’s book…”

Interestingly, though the description is intended to make us believe in the child’s existence, it relies heavily on the mythological and fictional. It also presents us with an ideal child, “embarrassingly beautiful” – though “a little crusty round the nose,” a touch of verisimilitude which actually makes it more adorable. Like any rational person, the narrator takes the child to Customer Services, but unfortunately no child has been reported lost, and the woman behind the desk automatically assumes the child is the narrator’s, as do a succession of customers. It is not so much no-one believes the narrator, as they do not hear her – the picture of her with the child creates the automatic assumption she is the mother, and any protestations are put down to the fact she is having a ‘bad day’. When the child starts to cry a woman hands him to the narrator and he stops:

“I had never felt so powerful in all my life.”

This is the first sign of any attraction to owning the child. Whether partly for this reason, or simply because she is bowing to the opinion of those around, the narrator takes the child to her car.

It is at this point the story moves from the unlikely to the surreal, and from the simply interesting to the exceptional: The child suddenly speaks:

“You’re a really rubbish driver…I could do better than that and I can’t even drive.”

The child speaks in a “charming” voice, but what it has to say is less so: a litany of racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks that would make the Daily Mail blush. The narrator’s reaction?

“I was enchanted.”

So much so that when she realises the child is hungry she immediately begins to breastfeed, and plan “how to ensure the child’s later enrolment in one of the area’s better secondary schools,” one of the story’s funniest lines. This despite the fact that we know the narrator is a Guardian reader. The contentment does not last, however, as the child proceeds to tell a series of politically incorrect jokes, and the narrator eventually (in fairy tale fashion) abandons him in the woods.

This story is funny, surprising (even shocking) and thought-provoking. It has a lot to say about the relationship between mothers and children, and society’s assumptions in that area. The non-PC child might represent the more right-wing views that can come with family; the fear of producing a child alien to your own sensibilities; or the link between child-rearing and the disempowerment of women (many of his remarks and jokes are sexist).

And, no, she doesn’t leave the child in the woods. Of course, she worries and goes back for him, and then…well, when it comes to short stories, I think you have to discover the denouement for yourself.

‘The Child’ can be found in The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith.

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