Having read two of Ali Smith’s earlier novels, I knew not to expect anything resembling a conventional novel when I began There But For The. Smith is one of those novelists who seem to be just as concerned about style and experimentation with form as they are about plot and characters - and There But For The follows that pattern. For instance, despite that the plot is largely moved along via one-on-one conversation, not a single quotation mark will be found in this novel. Smith, too, seems to favor long, rambling, multi-page paragraphs that are as densely packed with content as their overwhelming appearance to the eye leads the reader to expect them to be. Personally, I find paragraphs of extreme length to be tiring, almost mind-numbing, after wading through anything more than a handful of pages of them. A lack of quotation marks, on the other hand, does not bother me when the author, as Smith does here, still makes it perfectly clear which character is speaking.
Many of Smith’s regular readers love her for her style. I have to say that I tolerate her style, but love her work, instead, for its memorable characters and unusual plotlines, both of which are strong points of this new novel. The story begins at a London dinner table, over which a group of near strangers are becoming better acquainted, when Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table. Only when Miles does not return within a reasonable amount of time, is it determined that he has locked himself inside one of the home’s upstairs rooms – a room he will remain inside for hours, that turn into days, and then into weeks. Desperate to rid her home of her newly acquired squatter, the dinner host first searches Miles’s address book for someone who might be able to talk him out of the room.
That is how she finds Anna, the first of four narrators through whom we learn more about Miles Garth and how he ended up where he is. Anna, a fortyish woman who met Miles on a high school trip to France, at first barely remembers him but surprises herself by some of the things that come back to her. Mark, who is responsible for having invited Miles to the dinner party, is a gay man in his sixties. May, in her eighties, remembers the kindness shown her by Miles. And, finally, there is Brooke, a precocious little ten-year-old girl who only met Miles at the party but now feels somehow connected to him.
There But For The explores some basic questions, even to the meaning of life, but its main theme involves how differently those who pass through our lives might remember the experience than we remember it – and how little we really understand about ourselves and those with whom, over a lifetime, we share time. The novel’s relatively simple plot is deceptive; there is a lot going on here.
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)