Grief, Reading, and Narrative Time

Niamh Gordon explores narrative structure, grief and bereavement in Ali Smith’s contemporary novels

In 2012, poet and philosopher Denise Riley published a slim essay, ‘Time Lived, Without Its Flow.’ The essay details Riley’s experience of what she terms “arrested time” following the sudden death of her adult son. There is little detail about her son in the text; rather its focus is the particular temporal aspect of the phenomenon of grief. Riley experiences grief not just as a removal from the normal flow of time, but as a sudden realisation that before her son’s death, time was, in fact, flowing. Riley is clear that her bereavement experience is not one of time having stopped – but that, when grieving, one is taken outside of ‘normal’ time and must live through a-temporality. It is also clear that, for Riley, living this a-temporality is to live against narrative. In one passage she writes:

The tap turns, water pours. You can observe sequence. Nothing, though, follows from this observation to propel you, too, onward into the old world of consequences.  (Riley 2012, 41)

Riley uses the image of the flowing tap to call attention to the temporal aspect of narrative, in which an event occurs, and a consequence follows. But in her new bereaved state, she finds that grief has removed the consequential structure from time, relegated it in fact to an “old world” before her bereavement. The removal of this structure poses a fundamental problem to Riley as she attempts to understand what is happening to her. She cannot write it:

You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity…Narrative would imply at least a hint of ‘and then’ and ‘after that’. (Riley 2012, 16)

The bereavement leaves her without her tools of comprehension. She cannot write her experience, because to do so would require events in sequence with consequence; and this is not how it feels to live in “arrested time”. She calls this struggle to narrate her experience “not only an unenticing prospect, but structurally impossible” (63).

Riley highlights a structural paradox present in the writing, and reading, of a complex grief narrative. As we see above, she shows the temporal disruption of grief and in doing so reveals our reliance on the sequential nature of time to convey narrative information. As readers, we are limited by time, with the act of reading taking place sequentially, and chronologically. It is a generative act and a temporal one. In this sense, we might consider reading as a way of experiencing time. My PhD research takes this narrative resistance to the temporal disruption of grief, and asks how we might write, and read, through this paradox.

“Ali Smith” by Internaz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

During the first year of my PhD, one way I’ve explored this paradox is through the work of Scottish novelist and essayist Ali Smith. Smith is known for her skilful narrative experiments, which occur at the level of the word, the sentence, the chapter and the book. Grief is a familiar fixture in Smith’s texts. Her characters are often bereaved or suffering another kind of loss through illness or marginalised experience. Her stories are full of ghosts and ghost narrators.

Smith’s 2001 novel Hotel World, for instance, begins with a chapter in the voice of the ghost of Sara Wilby. A young chambermaid who climbs into a dumb waiter while on shift to see if she can fit, Wilby falls to her death. The novel transliterates this fall on its opening page:

Woooooooo-hoooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash […] what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end […] Here’s the story; it starts at the end. (Smith 2001, 3)

By beginning at the end of Sara’s life, the novel dedicates its narrative space to the  aftermath, a space in which grief and bereavement are the predominant lenses of comprehension. The multi-perspectival narrative allows for an exploration of grief that is both personal and structural, with each of the seven chapters titled in a different tense: “past”, “present historic”, “future conditional”, “perfect”, “future in the past”, and “present”. These titles emphasise the temporal aspect of grief from a grammatical angle. In the chapter “future in the past”, for instance, which gives us the perspective of Sara’s sister Clare, Clare says of her grief that:

[It] is like like reading a book yeah like say you were reading a book any book & you were halfway through it […] & halfway down the page it just goes blank it stops there just aren’t any more words on it & you know for sure that when you picked this book up it wasn’t like that it was a normal book & it had an end a last chapter a last page all that but now you flick through it right to the end & it’s all just blank nothing to tell you yes that is a bit like what it is like. (Smith 2001, 190)

For Clare, grief disrupts time in a way that is too shocking to be comprehended through reading. It actually requires non-reading, a book suddenly full of empty pages. Critic Mark Currie points out that this is “what it would take to make a book properly representative of the unexpected death in life: the impossible disappearance of a future you could see was there” (Currie 2013, 58). An unexpected death, and the fracturing grief that follows it, is a challenge to this visual certainty. It restructures our understanding of what is sequentially possible, what might happen next. However, when a reader engages in reading a novel, there is always present an understanding of the physical limits of the narrative in front of them: a paratextual foreknowledge of an ending. Even if there are experiments with narrative time within the text, the reader outside of the text can still see its boundaries.

In Smith’s prize-winning 2014 novel How to Be Both, the paratextual materiality of the book is central to how Smith explores grief challenging narrative. In particular, she emphasises reading as a way of constructing narrative. A feat of publishing innovation, How to Be Both consists of two halves: two narratives from the perspective of two different characters: one bereaved, one a ghost. Half the print run published the halves one way round, and the other half published the reverse order. This means when a reader picks up the novel it is one of two versions, and when they read it, they experience a specific and contingent narrative event. Reading the book creates the story they encounter. The book exists in two versions simultaneously, but reading it is destructive as well as generative. In reading it, the reader enacts, in Currie’s words, “the impossible disappearance of a future you could see was there”, forever erasing your own encounter with the book where George’s story comes first (or, indeed, second). This novel, then, functions as a performance of the temporal disruption of grief, mimicking the bereaved character of George.

Even from within the text, George is aware of the limits of conventional narrative form to convey her experience of grief. She remembers a conversation with her deceased mother thus:

Consider it, for a moment, yes, why don’t you, her mother says.
No she doesn’t.
Her mother doesn’t say.
Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages, but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable. (Smith 2014, 10)

Grief here is visual, a textual superimposition, as time concertinas in on itself. George’s loss is felt as the past and present coexisting. It resists the grammar of tense (her mother “says”) and the sequential structure of story (one thing after another) and offers a way of envisaging grief’s temporal disruption, perhaps as the two versions of How to be Both begin to exist on the same page.

In Smith’s 2021 Artful, the unnamed narrator is haunted by the ghost of their dead lover, an academic and writer. At one stage the narrator discovers and reads a draft of a lecture on time, in which the lover asks, “is it time that translates our lives into sequence, into meaning? Does sequence mean that things mean?” (Smith 2012, 20). This encountering of a text-within-a-text asks about the very nature of comprehension, as the narrator reads, and we read with them. Is it the sequencing effect of time that makes stories make sense? And if so, how do we read-to-understand stories which are temporally disrupted? For Denise Riley, constructing a narrative out of her grief experience is “structurally impossible”. Instead, she can only write about the paradox present in her attempt. For Smith, reading is a metaphor through which grief’s disruptive impact on narrative time is evidenced and explored. But Smith also literalises this metaphor, through references to paratextual acts of reading. As her readers, we cannot help but be aware of the peculiar contingency involved in the reading moment.

It is this contingency, and the way in which sequence affixes meaning to events (by giving them consequence) that is so central to the temporal disruption of grief. By close reading Smith’s work with a focus on the interaction between grief and reading, I seek to interrogate the paradox in how to write, and read, grief narratives. I am currently working on how a reader’s expectation of plot might interact with an event that refuses to be narratively known: a death by suicide. Suicide is not caused by a single factor (O’Connor 2021, 58) and so a resistance to the narrative instinct to simplify (explain why) will be key here. By engaging with examples like those of Riley and Smith, which are both experimental and resistant, I hope to make new creative and critical work that can convey to readers a more immersive reading experience of the specific event of bereavement by suicide.

Niamh Gordon is a second year SGSAH-funded PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her research into narrative time and bereavement by suicide is interdisciplinary, creative and practice based. She is situated between Creative Writing in the School of Critical Studies and the Institute of Health and Wellbeing, where she is a member of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab. You can find her on Twitter @_niamhgordon.


Currie, Mark. 2013. “Ali Smith and the Philosophy of Grammar.” In Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Monica Germanà and Emily Horton, 48-60. London: Bloomsbury Academic.  

O’Connor, Rory. 2021. When it is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It. London: Penguin Random House.

Riley, Denise. 2012. Time Lived Without Its Flow. London: Capsule Editions.

Smith, Ali. 2001. Hotel World. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Smith, Ali. 2012. Artful. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Smith, Ali. 2014. How To Be Both. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Further resources:

Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab for more information on the lab’s current research

Cruse Bereavement Care for general bereavement support

SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) for support for anyone who has been bereaved by suicide

PAPYRUS UK for more support and advice on preventing young suicide (under 35s)

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