37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
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. While visiting Gen, she also meets the precocious Brooke, a ten year old girl who is both charming and annoying in almost equal measure. More of her in a minute.
The second part is Mike's story. He is responsible for bringing Miles to the dinner party in the first place and we get the story of the events of that night as well as his meeting with Miles at the theatre. Mike has only met Miles for a few hours before the fateful night so doesn't really know him either. Having met Gen in the opening part, I was wondering why Miles would want to stay in the same city, let alone house, as this horrible woman. But once you meet her guests at the dinner party, she is comparatively charm personified. The party is excruciatingly awful. At one point I had to put the book down just to get away from them. The characters are variously homophobic, hypocritical, dull, money-driven, vacuous and spiteful. The exception is Brooke and her parents, two university lecturers.
"For" is the most strange of the lot in terms of its relation to Miles which only becomes suggested at the very end of the chapter. It is a beautifully written piece told from the point of view of an elderly woman suffering from dementia in a care home who is eventually taken on a trip to Greenwich to the camp of followers of "Milo" which has developed outside the house where Miles has taken unwelcome residence.
"The" is Brooke's time in the spotlight and is a rapid fire, almost stream of consciousness piece full of puns and bad jokes which sort of brings things together, but not entirely. It remains somewhat mysterious. We sense that she is picked on at school for being "too clever". She, like Smith, is obsessed with words and asks what is the point of fiction. It's probably lucky she hasn't read any Ali Smith because that would really have confused her! She is the voice and spirit of the book though.
Any literary fiction of this level of knowing cleverness treads a path between being brilliantly clever and a case of "the Emperor's New Clothes". Where that line is depends on the reader's own tastes. For me, Smith just about keeps on the right side, although there are a few wobbles along the way which prevented me from classing this as brilliant.
The idea of an outsider intruding is not new to Smith - she used a similar device in "The Accidental". What she does superbly is to play with language and themes. Songs and music are repeating motifs, as are the use of certain words and phrases. This if often quite subtle in effect. If pushed to identify what the book is about, it's difficult to say with any degree of confidence. She's fond of a metaphor, and perhaps describing the book like one of those Russian dolls is as good a metaphor as I can come up with. There are issues of time and memories, and in the whole worship of Milo thing, there are suggestions that there are comments on the current celebrity culture. Equally it is a celebration of language and linguistic games.
It's undoubtedly clever, and often both entertaining and amusing. I could understand it irritating some readers to the point of distraction, and at times it is frustratingly difficult to get hold of the storyline. It's a book that you have to let flow over you somewhat and, if possible, not judge until the final pages. Ultimately I enjoyed it but I'm not entirely sure why. As Brooke's mother tells her though, sometimes you just have to not worry about these things.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 7 November 2012
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 8 July 2013
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 :)
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 8 September 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. She is the one who speaks to Miles - she gives him jokes like gifts. First they are through the door - but then he tells her the door is no longer locked.
Anna can't face words - she is traumatised by a job she has left which required her to reduce the tortured lives of refugees to two thirds of a side of A4, to be read by people who did not believe them. But she introduces Brooke to puns.
Others project onto Miles. The man in the upstairs room is a cult figure - if not Christ then Julian Assange holed up in the embassy. Except that Assange is resisting extradition. What, why, is Miles resisting?
Clues lie with the little old lady, who every year shares with Miles the anniversary of her dead teenage daughter. This is an appointment Miles keeps, even when he is absent. He sends a teenage girl to see her and together they break jail - the hospital. She, as mother, heard her daughter's confidences. She refused to believe Miles saying he had been `had' by his grandfather.
Abuse is swept below the surface. Miles was abused, not believed. Brooke won't say her teacher is bullying her - she just stops going to school and runs wild round Greenwich, with little her busy, mild, unworldly academic parents can do. Mark as an elderly gay man is subtly diminished by those who claim to be his friends, as he grieves both for his mother and his partner. The refugees are disbelieved and rejected. The old lady does not want to die in the Harbour nursing home. She would rather die in the crowd outside Miles' window. Brooke runs past St Alfege's church and knows that St Alfege was battered to death by Vikings - a hostage for whom no one would pay the ransom.
Overall, this is an exploration of what lies beneath the polite veneer and the career ambitions of the dinner party guests - the real feelings, and the suffering that goes on underneath shiny middle class life. The ordinary is defamiliarised, and that is the main success of the novel.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 3 September 2012
THis is a beautiful book. I would strongly advise anyone to read it for its explorations of childhood, relationships, bereavement, old age, the nature of history. I am usually a sucker for a killer plot line, especially a romantic one! I kept willing there to be one, then realised halfway through that the book is better than that, more subtle. There IS a plot and there ARE relationships between all the characters but they are... smaller, but somehow more complex, more like real-life, and they are described in such a stunning and moving way, that by the end you have all the plot you need. It made me cry in the bath.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 24 December 2012
This is the first and only book I will attempt to read by Ali Smith. I simply had no interest in any of the characters, there is no story to speak of and the characters are stereotypes who are not developed. Like some reviewers, part 3 was for me the last straw. What was it all about, and did anyone actually care? I rarely abandon books, but this, which promised so much from the premise, was one. I certainly don't want to in any way offend those readers who enjoyed the book, but what is it all about and why bother to construct a book with such disparate parts with no real central theme?
on 16 August 2015
A mild-mannered dinner guest leaves the table after the main course, goes upstairs, locks himself in a spare bedroom, and stays there in silence for months. Four people, who each know him slightly, give their points of view. It sounds odd and surreal, and it is, so much so I find it hard to encapsulate my reaction. It is very easy to read, the pages turn almost too fast. I cared about each of the characters. Subtle connections and revelations are satisfyingly supplied. It evokes a poignant mix of hope and despair by showing how easy and impossible true human connection is. And it has more layers of meaning than one reading yielded, tempting me to reread and decipher them all. So why is my enthusiasm qualified? I’m not completely sure. Maybe it is simply that it held me at arm’s length with persistent word-play (which may annoy some but didn’t annoy me) and its experimental structure and style. In summary, I enjoyed it, am in awe at the imagination and cleverness, seduced by its kind, gentle thesis, and sense there is much more to it than I have gleaned on one over-fast reading. But I can’t quite love it.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 9 November 2011
This novel is one by a ventriloquist offering us many voices, all versions of her own of course, but with more or less imaginative distance involved. It is in four sections, each focusing on one small word, and there's a little note placed stand-alone to solve one of the mysteries about what connects to what in the plot. There are many other mysteries that are set up and unsolved, where the reader has to fill in (or not) in an echo of the elliptical sentences of May, such as there but for the ...
In order of preference ..
For: I was moved by the voice of May, because it was so fully realised and was not ostensibly 'clever' - instead of irony, there was an acutely observed sincerity and the author literally gives voice (May in hospital at first maintains silence), at length, to the kind of character usually rendered voiceless in our culture. There's humour but without the distancing irony of the rest of the book. Beautiful, sad, uplifting writing.
But: the long dinner party scene is highly entertaining - for no particular reason, a couple resident in Greenwich bring together an odd assortment of other couples, plus a child, to which Mark invites his new acquaintance, Miles, whom the others assume is his partner. The set-up allows for a rehearsal of the many banal and predictable opinions of the individuals assembled and as they get increasingly drunk, these become funny and very recognisable, if a bit stereotyped.
There: is a bit of back-story, explaining how Anna, unknown to the dinner party group, met Miles thirty years earlier - then it connects to the main narrative as Anna befriends the child, Brooke. The banter between the seventeen year old Anna and Miles is excrutiating - reminding me of my own pretentiousness at that age and making me glad I've binned my diaries of the time.
The: I have to admit, I skipped through this last section, even though it's clever, full of references and shows empathy with a lonely and bullied child. The jokes, as you'd expect from a nine year old, aren't quite funny enough -and the 'knock knock' relevance to the plot doesn't need so many reiterations - also it's full of facts, mostly historical and about Greenwich, rendered a bit twee through the jejune wonderings of a nine year old.
Overall though, the novel raises interesting questions about time, memory, childhood, old age and what it is we know or don't about our own and others' histories.
on 25 April 2014
This was a really quirky but enjoyable book to read. The book is divided into four sections: there, but, for and the. Each section is about a different character and eventually you start to see how their stories connect. Much of the narrative is written as a reflection of the character for that section and the author has cleverly written commentary about language and specifically the title of the section into this narrative. The two that stick in my mind are the reflection of 'being "there" on a train' by not being distracted my making a phone call for instance and Brooke's reflections on the use of the word 'the' - leaving it out of a sentence when it is implied and then using it twice in a row when referring to the word the itself. This attention to detail gives the book a real depth. All the way through there are bits and pieces which are left unexplained. I liked this aspect too as the reader can use their own imagination to fill in the blanks.
35 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 24 June 2011
I have had an interesting relationship with Ali Smith before leading up to reading `There But For The'. I really liked her last novel `The Accidental', I loved `Girl Meets Boy' and thought `The First Person and Other Stories' was a lovely collection. However I really didn't get on with `Hotel World', to the point where I didn't finish it and one of her other short story collection I simply didn't get. So I was intrigued to see which way my experience with `There But For The' would go, I admit I was rather worried that the title might mean it was going to be a little experimental.
The premise of `There But For The' is a rather simple one. Imagine throwing a dinner party and having one of your guests vanishing after the starter to lock themselves in your spare room for months. This is the very position that Jen and Eric (can you see what Smith has done there?) find themselves in after they invite Mark, a `homosexual' they hardly know, who brings Mike along with him as his plus one even though he isn't and he barely knows him. It is Mike that disappears and starts the lock in, with no seeming cause as to why.
What I really liked about how Smith wrote this was that she tells the story through people who know Miles and not through him himself. Most of them hardly know him that well at all, or have for certain small parts of his life up to the dinner party. I won't say anything about them as it might give some of the joy of the `discovery' aspect of the book away. This provides little insights and a certain distance which rather than alienate the reader actually creates intrigue and a little bit of mystery. I wanted to read on. It was a risk but its one that I thought Ali Smith pulled off successfully and it certainly kept me reaching for the book at any opportunity. I think I ended up reading this in about five sittings.
The other master stroke, which I know other people have questioned a little (and you can see in the comments of John Self's post on `There But For The' we have had a discussion about it), was the characters of Jen and Eric `The Hosts'. I don't know if it was intentional, I can't speak for Smith on this one, but it was like she poured everything that's horrible about those smug middle class people who have dinner parties and invite diverse people (sexuality and religion wise) they don't know simply to almost see what happens, like they are an addition to the nights entertainment. I found this really comic and it added to the book's fun feel.
As soon as you mention the word `fun' in a novel people will mark it as not having enough literary merit. Not that I am saying that's what I search for in books. I would heartily disagree with this, and in fact use `There But For The' as a prime example of a book that is fun and is full of literary merit. Smith plays with words and the formation of language (typesetting etc), you can't get more `literary' than that, and has fun with it, the reader is made to engage with different forms of prose you might be reading a newspaper cutting about Mike and then when Mark's dead mother speaks in his head, brilliant character quirk, it is always in a rhyme.
Her characters are also very quirky and fully formed. One of the highlights of the book is where over about 40+ pages we are at the dinner party with all the guests on the evening everything happened.. This could have been really dull because it's full of random conversation pieces, bits of politics, buts of `world issues', drunken embarrassing over sharing and accidental stereotyping. It's entertaining, its maddening, its funny, its sad, most of all its insightful - especially in how much is said by what's unsaid. I had a feeling of `uh-oh' when it started but I utterly loved it. I don't think I have read anything quite like it. It's a piece of writing that some authors would have given their writing arm to, well, write. It's intricate.
I think `There But For The' is a great novel and so far it's my favourite of Ali Smith's works to date that I have read. She has taken bits of her earlier work; great characters, observations, comedy, unusual narratives, prose and pacing and put them all together. It's a tour-de-force as opposed to a hotch-potch. I don't want to say this is her most accessible book, even though in many ways it is, because that makes it sound like its not experimental and it is. It's just honed down, controlled and done without ego. I am very excited to see what she will come up with next.