Sunday 11 December 2016

Review: There But For The by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, €22.45

Published 16/07/2011 | 05:00

A dinner party of strangers offers up the potential for enlightenment, contradiction, discomfiture and excitement.

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But the very last thing the determinedly pretentious hosts of a gathering in their chichi Greenwich house could have expected is a permanent new addition to their household.

In between the main course and dessert, Miles, a friend of a distant friend whose only perceived weakness is his unannounced vegetarianism, departs from the table. At first, the increasingly drunken guests pay no attention to his absence, presuming he has gone to the bathroom. Only he hasn't and he never reappears.

His hosts decide he must have made a bolt for it -- and who could blame him, given the particularly odious right-wing opinions of some of his fellow guests. It isn't until long after the other guests have weaved their way home that the hosts realise he has actually locked himself into their spare bedroom and is refusing to leave or even communicate with them.

This is not a moment of madness, this is the beginning of a siege that will affect all lives connected. Such is the opening premise of this new novel by Ali Smith (Booker-nominated author of Hotel World and The Accidental). By times amusing, engaging and edifying, it is punctuated with Smith's arid observational wit, her ability to dissect language, to turn it inside out and upside down.

However, there is also such a lack of narrative drive, of cohesion, of simple progression that the resounding sensation is one of frustration. There are four principal strands that tie themselves up in the most tangled, and at times convoluted, knots.

Anna, the most convincing of the quartet of narrators, befriended Miles on a school trip over 20 years ago but hasn't heard from him until her email address is found in his jacket and the despairing hosts contact her.

The precocious Brooke is the only child of two academics who attended the party and live nearby. She speaks in a manner that no adult -- let alone nine-year old child -- would, and you can see why she might seek refuge in the company of eccentrics.

And we have the impossibly complicated character of Mark, the man responsible for bringing Miles to the party. He is the son of a famous painter who committed suicide when he was just a boy and his grieving father then shipped him out to live with a stern aunt, while his only brother was sent to another, nicer aunt.

With these various overlapping narratives, it is curious that the only voice we never hear is that of Miles. Smith does take non-linear thought processes to a new level, but it is not always interesting to follow them.

Her focus seems to have been on the intellectual jousting and canny vernacular game-play at which she certainly excels, rather than character development.

And, ultimately, this is sadly far too clever for its own good.

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