Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Review - There But For The

Last November, in a flush of A. S. Byatt-induced excitement, I recommended my grandmother Angels and Insects. This was well-intentioned but (I realise now) a grave and awful error, because now whenever I communicate with her she asks me to tell her about something else just as amazing and I have nothing to say. Sad but true: it's been over four months since I've read any new fiction that I thought was really exceptional. All the good stuff has been required reading for my course (which proves that an English Literature MA has some use after all).

But - at long, long last- I think I've finally found something that approaches (even if it doesn't entirely reach) real excellence.

Just in time, because I was beginning to lose hope.

There But For The (no, I haven't missed a word, that's really the title) is the newest novel by Ali Smith, a writer who has previous form for being pretty great. My favourite thing by her is a novella she did for the Canongate Myths series called Boy Meets Girl, a retelling of the story from Ovid's Metamorphoses about a girl who problematically falls in love with another girl and then gets turned into a man by the gods so that they can get married. If that sounds like something the Republicans might approve of, don't worry. Ali Smith's version definitely isn't.

The basic premise of There But For The, in as far as it has one and isn't just a tenuously connected group of short stories (which I think is what it really is) is as follows. A man is invited to dinner at the house of people he doesn't know. The people turn out to be objectionable asses. The man goes upstairs and locks himself into their spare room and refuses to come out ever again.

Beginning of story.

Don't worry, you'll never find out why the man, Miles, does this. What you will hear about are all the people whose lives - indirectly or directly - have been made subtly better by Miles's existance both before and during his voluntary-imprisonment episode. It's all extremely tangential, and you've got to be sharp to pick up the threads that link each part together. Honestly, there are some hints I didn't get, and they're still bugging me now (is the first short story actually real, and if so how? What happened to May's daughter? Is Mark actually being haunted?) but I think that might be what Ali Smith is trying to do. Life (she's saying) is a bit weird and lumpy and nonsensical but all the same it's fascinating, and everything you find out just leaves you wanting to know more.

Granted, her portrayal isn't perfect. Smith has an annoying unwillingness to use speech marks like a normal (English language using) human being, and (more importantly) at times she gets far too wrapped up in a desire to be Relevant to Modern Life. Like most attempts, this just feels like somebody trying too hard to be serious and not managing it. At one point, for example, she has her characters talk about remote-controlled toy-sized drones that can kill you. Yes, yes, very horrifying, but the scene doesn't actually do anything as far as the novel is concerned. It's just there, being lazily right-on and making the reader feel smug about how much better they are than the idiot characters who think it's a good idea.

However, in the main I think Smith writes excellently, and it's the charm and drive of her writing style that carries There But For The along. She's got a flair for describing the weird in everyday life, and where I think Smith's particularly brilliant is the way she writes children. Her kids are alert, smart and casually bizarre in the way that actual children have. Children in books tend to be either tiny, unnerving adults or lisping poppets, whereas in real life they are like the little girl I saw on my way to Tesco's yesterday, who was running along shouting "CHEERS! CHEERS! CHEERS! GRAARGH!" to each of the lions on the underpass mural. Smith's children enjoy things like accessorising tiaras with combat trousers, hearing facts about medieval martyrdoms and standing on their hands while singing nonsense rhymes about the universe. In other words, they're normally abnormal, and it's incredibly refreshing.

As I've said, Ali Smith's more of a short story woman, and you can tell. There But For The's only real flaw in my eyes was its complete and utter lack of any kind of resolution. It began, stuff happened, more stuff happened and then it stopped. The situations she creates are so interesting, and her characters are so empathetic (the Bayoudes, especially, are wonderful), that for a while I seriously considered going over to Ali Smith's house, breaking in and rooting around under her bed to see if she'd left any more bits of story lying about.

What I'm trying to say is: I liked this book. After all the dodgy stuff I've been wading through lately, this one was delightful. It was charming, intriguing and a very smooth and engrossing read, and when I finished it I wished it had been twice as long. However, (just in case, in a mystical twist of the universe, Ali Smith happens to be reading this) a sequel would do just as well.

4 stars.


  1. Oooh. I have read some mixed reviews about this book, but yours has tipped the scales for me. Off to the library for it, I go... (Speak like Yoda, I do.)


    1. Good I hope you will find it! For good it is.