Short Story Review: ‘The Beholder’ by Ali Smith

Story Title: The Beholder by Ali Smith
Collection/Anthology?: ***
Briefly: Weighed down by depression, a woman returns to her doctor with an alarming discovery. There’s a patch of thorns developing on her chest and it’s quickly growing into something altogether horticultural.
Afterthoughts: You know these weird little surreal tales that Ali Smith is renowned for penning? Well, The Beholder is one of them. It’s the kind of story that one has to read half a dozen times to get the gist of, but even then one is often left scratching one’s head. There is nothing wrong with this of course – it’s what makes fiction more an artform than anything else – but it’s not the kind of story that’s for everyone.

Me? Well, I’m indifferent about these kinds of tales. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. In this case I don’t think this one did work for me, but it doesn’t make it a bad story. I get, I think, what the story is trying to tell me. It’s a contemplation on good sprouting from bad, or rather beauty emerging from ugly. Here is a woman who is going through a hard time in her life, and yet she still finds something to celebrate. Sure, it’s not something as straightforward as a lottery win or a new car, rather it’s a rose bush sprouting from her chest. Not very practical I know, but at least the woman is thinking positively. A clever story, but not really one for me.

Notable quote: Then one day not long after I had surprised myself by crying about, of all things, how beautiful a word can be, I had just got up, run myself a bath and was about to step into it. I opened the top buttons of my pyjamas and that’s when I first saw it in the mirror, down from the collarbone. It was woody, dark browny greeny, sort-of circular, ridged a bit like bark, about the size of a two pence piece.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

*What the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award judges said about this story: Joanna Trollope – ‘Is it a metaphor? Is the heroine, calming describing this phenomenon, losing her mind? Or is she, in fact, finding it…We don’t know. But we want to. Intriguingly this isn’t a mad story but rather a very moving one. And it is really, really beautifully written.’

EFG Short Story Award This story was read as part of an overall review of the 2013 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award shortlist. For further details of the award and the stories to be found on the shortlist, please visit the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award section on the Booktrust website.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).