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There but for the [Paperback]

Ali Smith
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 July 2012

There but for the is the sparkling satirical novel by bestselling Ali Smith

'There once was a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party . . .'

As time passes by and the consequences of this stranger's actions ripple outwards, touching the owners, the guests, the neighbours and the whole country, so Ali Smith draws us into a beautiful, strange place where everyone is so much more than they at first appear.

There but for the was hailed as one of the best books of 2011 by Jeanette Winterson, A.S. Byatt, Patrick Ness, Sebastian Barry, Boyd Tonkin, Erica Wagner and Nick Barley.

'Dazzlingly inventive' A.S. Byatt

'Whimsically devastating. Playful, humorous, serious, profoundly clever and profoundly affecting' Guardian

'A real gem' Erica Wagner, The Times

'Eccentric, adventurous, intoxicating, dazzling. This is a novel with serious ambitions that remains huge fun to read' Literary Review

'If you liked Smith's earlier fiction, you will know that she enjoys setting up a situation before chucking in a literary Molotov cocktail then describing what happens' Sunday Express

'Wonderful, word-playful, compelling' Jeanette Winterson

'Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today' Daily Telegraph

'I take my hat off to Ali Smith. Her writing lifts the soul' Evening Standard

Ali Smith is the author of novels Girl Meets Boy, Like and the bestsellers The Accidental and Hotel World. She has published the short story collections The First Person and Other Stories, Free Love and Other Stories, Other Stories and Other Stories and The Whole Story and Other Stories. She has been twice-shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, twice nominated for the Orange Prize and won the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 2005.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (5 July 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141025190
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141025193
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 24,961 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


Whimsically devastating. Playful, humorous, serious, profoundly clever and profoundly affecting (Guardian)

Remarkable. A brilliant novel: funny, serious, always surprising, always true (The Times)

I take my hat off to Ali Smith. Her writing lifts the soul (Evening Standard)

A playfully serious or seriously playful novel full of wit and pleasure. Wonderful (Observer)

Eccentric, adventurous, intoxicating, dazzling. This is a novel with serious ambitions that remains huge fun to read. The writing dances along (Literary Review)

Poignant, empathetic, funny. A book full of kindness and compassion (Time Out)

Fizzying, affectionate, sparkling. Smith presents her world view in words as fresh as lemons. A joyful read (Herald)

A tour de force (Lionel Shriver Financial Times)

A virtuoso piece of writing, both funny and gripping . . . Smith is a writer with a rich array of conventional strengths (Times Literary Supplement)

A must read (Toronto NOW)

About the Author

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and lives in Cambridge. She is the author of Free Love, Like, Hotel World, Other Stories and Other Stories, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy and The First Person and Other Stories.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
By Ripple TOP 100 REVIEWER
If you are the type of reader who thinks that the mark of a good book is a plot, then step away from this book: you'll hate it. Ali Smith's intricately clever and often funny "There but for the" is very much at the literary end of the fiction spectrum. Not in terms of the language used though - Smith uses simple language, and a LOT of puns, and if anything, as the title suggests, she's more interested in the little words. It's playful and strangely affecting, while at the same time a little affected and often slightly irritatingly free flowing.

Reading the publisher's blurb you will discern that at the heart of the book is a man, Miles, who is invited to a middle class dinner party and, between the main course and the desert, mysteriously removes himself from the frankly awful company and locks himself in the hosts' spare room from where he refuses to budge. But other than this happening, it's not so much a plot device as just something that occurred. The book itself is split into four parts, named "There", "but", "for" and "the", each focusing on someone who vaguely knew Miles although none knew him particularly well. This follows on from a bemusing introduction whose meaning only becomes clear at the end. It's almost like four short stories.

"There" concerns a girl, Anna, or Anna K (punning on anarchy) who met Miles briefly when they both won a writing competition in 1980 to describe life in 2000. Time is a recurring image in the book, which is set almost wholly in Greenwich. Anna is called in by the hostess, the awful Genevieve, known as Gen (her husband, Eric gives us another pun to discover: Gen - Eric) because Miles phone has her details stored in it, but she isn't a great deal of help as she was only "there" with him for a while.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable, takes you along 8 Sep 2013
I was recommended this for its vivid description of Greenwich Park, the surging mass of people around the meridian, as much as for the story. This is the park viewed through the eyes of a child - Brooke - and is her world that she owns.

Reading the novel was a bit like jumping into a swimming pool. There is a mass of gurgling sound and bubbles of internal thoughts as you move below the surface into people's thoughts. Speech marks have disappeared in homage to James Joyce. And we are in the present tense.

The plot may seem a shaggy dog story - a set up, a puzzle whose solution slightly eludes us although it is so near we feel we can touch it. Why did Miles, the almost stranger, go upstairs at the dinner party and not come down again, locking himself in the upstairs room for many months? Is it a selfish or selfless act since he is someone who effaces himself - who thinks of others? Is he a Christ-like figure, on whom others pin their hopes and dreams of protest? And why and to where does he walk away at the end? Though others need him and remember him and he has not answered their questions?

It is what happens on the way that is interesting. It is what happens inside others - drawn out by Miles. These protagonists speak within themselves, to themselves, to the winds at the top of Greenwich Park, to the dead, as much as to each other. From them we learn about Miles. Only rarely do we hear Miles voice, his own mild words.

The entire book is a play on language - the sound of language, and what is spoken and not spoken.
One man - Mark - has a dead mother, an artist, who speaks to him, constantly goading him in rhyme.
Brooke, aged ten, precociously hangs on to the world with puns and jokes.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There but for the 7 Nov 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Miles Garth, a guest at a dinner party, locks himself into the upstairs bedroom between the main course and desert. Despite enthusiastic coaxing from the other guests, he stays put and as days turn into weeks and then months, his isolation has an effect on many people's lives.

I was recommended this book by my sister and I wasn't disappointed. It took me a little while to get the title straight, as it's unusual to say the least and doesn't make sense, but this leads to curiosity. Once I started reading it I realised that the book is divided into four sections: There, But, For, The. Now it was clear!

Each section is written from a different person's point of view and each character has his or her own voice. A very distinctive style has been used for the different sections. If you opened the book at any random page, you'd know whose story you were reading.

Each character has a link, albeit sometimes not a close one, to the main character, Miles. Smith has cleverly used the other characters and their interactions with Miles to disclose more about him and his life and the reasons as to why he's locked himself in the upstairs bedroom of a stranger's house.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Smith challenges the status quo 8 July 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
It's always homely to read books set in your local area. As with other work of Smith's, there is a focus on time in this novel which suits the location in which it is set- Greenwich. The book is divided into 4 parts: there, but, for, the. Each from the perspective of a different character, and again typical Smith, her writing style in each section reflects each character, even though the novel is written in third person from an omniscient narrative.

It would be difficult to summarise the story as, similar to her Hotel World, the plot revolves around one incident (interspersed with memories). However, in a sentence it is about what history is, or rather, who history is. We are never shown the perspective of the white male who locks himself in the room, although an he is an interesting character, this is partly due to the mystery. We are however taken through the thoughts and perspectives of a woman, a gay man, an elderly lady and a young black girl. Smith challenges the status quo. A good read :)
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Utterly pointless
This was a well written book that just didn't seem to go anywhere. The characters were interesting but you only got tiny glimpses and for me this was not quite enough.
Published 2 months ago by Sudeshna Patra
4.0 out of 5 stars Quirky
This was a really quirky but enjoyable book to read. The book is divided into four sections: there, but, for and the. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Elainedav
4.0 out of 5 stars good but not her best
I enjoyed this a lot, but for me it doesn't come to the standard of The Accidental or Hotel World. I found it clever and very amusing in places, so don't at all regret buying it... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Maggie G
3.0 out of 5 stars There but for the
There were lots of themes going on in this novel and I daresay Ali Smith is very skilful in the way she handles them all but it just isn't my kind of thing. Read more
Published 7 months ago by brookwoodsue
2.0 out of 5 stars Struggling
Reading this on Kindle and maybe that isn't helping but I truly don't get this book! Am halfway through and struggling to make myself read on (but I will) - have borrowed it from... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Samantha
1.0 out of 5 stars disappointed
No story. Some funny lines, here and there, if you blink, you miss it. It made me feel very stupid as I couldnt get into it. We read it in our book club. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Veronika Bernstein
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and life-affirming
Normally when I see the words 'life-affirming' describing a book or a film, I feel inclined to run a mile, as I expect something sermonising about the 'power of the human spirit'. Read more
Published 14 months ago by M. READ
5.0 out of 5 stars OK, I was woefully wrong
After reading the first section of TBFT I immediately took to my keyboard to slag it off. After reading the next two sections I moderated my opinion because the writing is so good. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Mike Collins
5.0 out of 5 stars Received in great condition
the book arrived on time and in good condition. I cannot remember the USED condition I was to find it in but it was like NEW to me. thanks very much.
Published 16 months ago by Lassona Williams
1.0 out of 5 stars Lost the plot
The story plot seemed interesting - man locks himself in bathroom and how that affects those in his social circle and beyond. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Triskel
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