There but for the

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There But for the , Ali Smith, book reviewOccasionally, as if by chance, books appear shortly after each other which address the same theme. It may be chance, but sometimes there will have been a common source – an event, an idea, a discussion or debate – which touched both authors at the same time a couple of years before the books were published. Julian Barnes (in The Sense of an Ending) deals with the (un)reliability of memory as the central theme of his novel. And Ali Smith in There But For The addresses the same issue, though for her it is just one of several themes and, typically, it is dealt with in a very different way.

Mark (one of the central characters) is haunted by the voice of his dead mother, who speaks to him mostly in rhyming couplets: “Say that a man is fully formed by not / just what’s remembered also what’s forgot”. Mark has attended a dinner party at the house of a couple whom he does not know well and is accompanied by a recent acquaintance, Miles. During the course of the dinner party (which is recounted in detail in one of the four sections of the book), Miles quietly goes upstairs, locks himself in a bedroom and refuses to leave. Throughout most of There But For The, Miles remains mysterious and out of sight, locked in the bedroom and increasingly the focus of speculation for all of those around him. Of all of the characters, he and his motivations remain least clear, but he is the fulcrum around which everything else revolves.

And the other characters are an interesting, if sometimes irritating, bunch. Anna K (a reference to The Trial by Kafka) knew Miles briefly many years ago and is summonsed to see if she can persuade him to leave the room. Typical of this novel, we learn eventually that her name is Anna Kee – a pun on Anarchy, and also on key, though in this case the Kee cannot open the room. We also meet May Young (who is, of course, very old), struggling with her memory and trying to avoid consignment to a nursing home, and the precocious 10-year-old Brooke, who babbles away to herself and her parents and who has a strong attraction to “knock knock” jokes. If you like this sort of wordplay (and there is much of it) then you will love this book.

Ali Smith is an enormously intelligent, playful writer. I do not think that there is anyone else quite like her. This is a novel which is quirky and funny, but at the same time challenging and serious. Not a great deal happens, and the pleasure of this book is not in the plot but in the language. Because she is unique and different, she is not a writer for everyone — however, if you want to try something experimental which may be unlike any book you have ever read before , then There But For The is a good place to start.

There But For The by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton, June 2011
Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for providing a review copy.

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There But For The
by Ali Smith

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Written by Ian

Ian is a medical academic with a long standing interest in books, particularly literary and crime fiction, as both a reader and a collector. He has published extensively in the scientific literature, mainly on nutrition. He has two grown-up children and lives in Ireland.

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