Narrative techniques in Ali Smith's Like

Term Paper, 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Summary of the novel
1.2. Short overview over narrative techniques in contemporary literature

2. Comparison of narrative techniques in Like to those aspects in contemporary English and Scottish literature
2.1. Ali Smith and her novel
2.2. Structure and perspective
2.3. Time
2.4. Character
2.5. Stylistic features

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

1.1. Summary

Ali Smith’s first novel “Like” was published in 1997. It deals with the relationship between Aisling McCarthy and Amy Shone, a Scottish and an English woman, described from a retrospective point of view.

They meet in Scotland when they are teenagers. Amy is on holiday and is everything that Aisling is not: a typical girl in a nice dress. The unequal girls become friends. Aisling who makes first homosexual experiences feels attracted to Amy.

Some years pass. Finding no acceptance for homosexual people in her Scottish hometown, and obsessed with the wish to be close to Amy, she leaves from home in order to follow Amy to Cambridge where she is studying.

When she finds Amy, everything is different. Aisling does not fit in the literate world Amy lives in. Sometimes Amy even ignores her. There are several conflicts and Aisling finally leaves to London. But she still wants to see Amy again and returns soon to find out what Amy really thinks about her. Clandestinely reading Amy’s diary she learns, that there is no word about her in it, as if she never existed for the girl she loves. Aisling flips and burns Amy’s apartment, taking the diaries with her. This is described in the second part of the novel.

The first part is told from a later point of view. Amy has lost the ability to read and lives with her seven-year-old daughter Kate in Scotland. They have moved very often in the past. When going on holiday to Italy and meeting her parents again after eight years, Amy starts remembering how to read. She receives a parcel with her diaries in it and a phone call from a journalist who is looking for Aisling. Amy she denies to know her well. Burning the diaries, she can finally make herself free from the past and settle down.

1.2. Short overview over narrative techniques in contemporary literature

Modern literature is meant to be an imitation of real life. This impression is achieved by narrative techniques.

Modern fiction refrains from omniscient perspective. Mostly, there is a single first-person narrator in order to get deep insight into one perspective, but there are also novels in which the reader gets to know the situation from several points of view. This means there can be more than one narrator, even several first-person narrators. The first-person narration gives the reader the opportunity to get more insight into the character by using stream of consciousness technique. This special form of narration follows the character’s thoughts and his perception.

The main character of the modern novel is not the traditional hero any more. Often he is in a crisis. Characters can be social outcasts, different by sexual orientation, or suffer psychological problems, drug or alcohol abuse. This makes the plot decidedly different from traditional plots: it picks up former taboo topics that cannot be or are only rarely found in traditional literature.

The treatment of time in contemporary novels causes narration only to show fragments of the characters’ lives. There is no chronological order of time any more. Instead of this, time is shown as it is experienced in real life.

Language in modern novels tends to be simple. In the case of Scottish novels it is often a transcription of the Scots dialect, which is simple for a Scot to read but hard to understand for readers who are not used to it.

There are not many stylistic features in modern novels. Some authors have a specific style and atmosphere in their works, but there is no general norm.

Scottish novels generally show up “Caledonian antisyzygy”. This term introduced by Gregory Smith in 1919 claims that Scottish (=Caledonian) culture is contradictory. Modern ideas stand in contrast to traditional values, sometimes this idea can be found in contemporary novels.

On the following pages, I will examine in how far the named techniques occur in Ali Smith’s Like.

2. Comparison of narrative techniques in Like to those aspects in contemporary English and Scottish literature

2.1. Ali Smith and her novel

The structure of Like is similar to the structure of other contemporary Scottish novels like Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing, but also does not differ much from contemporary English novels. Examining the structure and style of Like we have to keep in mind that

For Ali Smith, writing is about pulling the stuffing out of recognised literary structures of whilst still giving a nod (albeit small) to devices which many readers find imperative in a novel: a story which progresses chronologically, pulling its characters forever forward in time. In this sense her books are theoretical experiments, all delivered back to front and stitched up from the inside out.[1]

This explains the connection to Scottish and English novels. Smith takes up aspects of both. Furthermore, we have to consider the title of the novel. The word “like” has several meanings. These are the main ones:

Verb: to find sth. pleasant; enjoy sth.; to prefer to do sth.

Preposition: similar to sth./sb., resembling sth./sb.; characteristic of sb.; in the manner of sb./sth.; for example

Conjunction: in the same manner as; as well as

Adjective: not sure

Noun: a person or thing that is similar to another (cf. OALD, p.652)

The word “like” is central for the novel. It is repeatedly used in several contexts; the reader gets the impression that is even more often used than in other novels. Especially striking in this context is the end of the novel, when Ash tries “to think how to say it; what it’s like” (p.330f) without letting the reader exactly know what she wants to describe. She writes five pages (p.331-335) with sentences starting with the word “like” used as a preposition.

Like the way a leaf opens, flattens itself out and you can trace the veins in it. Like holding a leaf in the palm of your hand. Like the brilliant colour it is. (p.331) […] You say something’s like something else, and all you’ve really said is that actually, because it’s only like, it’s different. (p.335)

The verb “like” with its connotation of positive feelings also refers to relationships, especially Amy and Ash’s, but also the one between Amy and her parents, Amy and Kate, and Ash and her family. Although the word “like” appears a lot, Ali Smith’s novels in general are to a certain extent “un-like” contemporary literature, maybe because they are relatively young compared to the fiction of the 80s. Like, as the author’s first novel, was published in 1997. Perhaps we should keep to Ash’s quotation on the word “like” given above: a novel can be similar to other ones, but never be the same.

At least, Ali Smith’s novels are similar to each other. All of them start with a collection of quotations. Like is no exception in this point: there are five quotations by Tennessee Williams, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Morgan, Dana and Angela Carter. They present the varying nature of human relationships that characterizes the novel. Especially Dickinson’s and Dana’s quotations fit the story of Like. Both could as well be words said by Ash who is in love with Amy and cannot forget her, maybe even vice versa.

“My story has a moral -/ I have a missing friend –“ (Dickinson).

“Budding trees, autumn leaves, / a snowflake or two - / all kinds of everything / remind me of you” (Dana).(p.1)

Another aspect all her novels share is Smith’s humour. “Her wicked sense of humour spawn endless puns at the blackest moments in her books,” says Thursfield and gives several examples. Unfortunately there are none from Like in her essay. There will be examples in the course of this paper.



Excerpt out of 16 pages


Narrative techniques in Ali Smith's Like
University of Siegen
Contemporary Scottish Writers
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
539 KB
Narrative, Smith, Like, Contemporary, Scottish, Writers, Gender
Quote paper
BA, MA Kathrin Gerbe (Author), 2004, Narrative techniques in Ali Smith's Like, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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