Tuesday 6 December 2016

Review: There But For The by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, €15.99

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 26/06/2011 | 05:00

MODERN FABLE: Sadly, Ali
Smith's new book fizzles out
MODERN FABLE: Sadly, Ali Smith's new book fizzles out

Ali Smith's previous two novels were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. While reading the first half of her latest book, it would be a brave soul who'd bet against it being third time lucky. There But For The, despite the irritatingly tricksy title, is a warm, playful, dazzlingly written modern fable. After that point... well, first things first.

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The novel centres on a strange and original conceit. A man by the name of Miles Garth comes to dinner at a house in London, goes upstairs some time during the evening, and locks himself into the spare room. Not for days, or weeks, but months, it subsequently transpires. What happens to the affected lives in the face of such a bizarre occurrence? There are four sections, each told from the point of view of a character connected, directly or tangentially, to the incident. Anna met Miles years ago when they were schoolchildren on a trip round Europe; Mark brought Miles to the party; around this double helix, other characters come and go in frequently hilarious set pieces, not least the dinner party itself which descends brilliantly into a simmering stew of drunkenness, pretentiousness, sexual tension, political posturing, envy, and backbiting.

All this is handled adroitly, and with great poignancy too. "One morning it was summer," Mark finds himself thinking, "the next you woke up and the whole year was over; one minute you were 30, the next 40, 60 next year quick as a wink." Memory, nostalgia, the sense of growing older, of things passing, the disappointments of adult life -- the themes are handled lightly, but are built up, layer on layer, with cunning care. The increasing shabbiness of modern life is a recurring motif, the internet not least, which "promises everything but everything isn't there", and which ends only by offering a "a whole new way of feeling lonely".

You end the first two sections desperate to know more about these people. Instead the book cuts to the story of May, old and dying. It's heartbreaking, and unerringly true in its understanding of how regret can define one's last days; but I wanted so badly to get back to those other characters that the switch was doomed to be a disappointment -- and even when we finally do return to them in the final quarter, it is through the eyes of Brooke, the precocious child who is the only one who sees the stranger in the spare room as a real human being rather than a symbol or a nuisance, and who gets him to respond where others have failed simply by telling jokes.

Brooke is the moral heart of There But For The, and the one true artist among them; Ali Smith clearly adores her (maybe there was something of the too-clever-by-half ingenue in her younger self too). But in a book so finely balanced as this, in which each section has to bear an equal weight, the reader needs to be equally interested in all the characters and all the different threads to sustain interest, and Brooke and May are too insubstantial to carry it off. The wordplay, which had been indulged with disarming lightness hitherto, becomes manic and forced, the endless punning is draining, and the book fizzles out anti-climactically just when it needed to be brought to a dazzling conclusion.

All human life is here, from childhood to death, but it's as if the human elements have been sacrificed to formal structure, leaving only the shimmering ghost of a story behind. It's still more than most contemporary novelists could manage, but it could have been so much more.

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