“There But For The” by Ali Smith

Date finished: 10th June 2012

It’s no secret that Ali Smith is probably my favourite author, but she’s not that prolific, so I was delighted last year when she published a new novel. In fact, my copy is a beautiful hardback edition but I didn’t want to ruin it, so I decided to download the ebook version to actually read, but it was quite expensive (on top of the full price hardback edition), so I waited for the price to come down a bit before I decided to buy it a few weeks back.

The book is called There But For The and tells the story of what happens when a guest at a dinner party leaves the table partway through the meal, goes upstairs and decides to lock himself in the guest bedroom then refuses to leave. The narrative comes from various people both directly and indirectly involved in the drama.

I loved this book. I love the way Smith is inventive with language and style, I love the picture she paints with her words, and I love her engaging characters. One of the narrators remembers when she first met Miles and how their acquaintance was formed, while another is the dinner party guest who brought Miles along as his guest, and then there’s the incredibly precocious daughter of two of the guests whose mixture of intelligence, insightfulness and naivety is a joy to read. And as the story enfolds, we also get snippets of how the dinner party hosts deal with their unexpected guest and glimpses of the reaction from the wider society to this story.

The standout element of the story for me, was the way the conversation at the dinner table is recounted within one of the characters narrative. It’s told in the higgledy piggledy way conversations take place with people talking over each other, mixing stories and the revelations of those who may have had a bit too much to drink. It’s funny, and beautifully observed, and although not conventional dialogue that you would expect in a novel, it just flows of the page as if you were there listening to this funny and at times ridiculous, overlapping conversation.

It’s odd, but I like my novels to have a plot to move you through the story, and I normally complain when books don’t have them, but I’m going to have to eat my words on this book. There is very little plot, but I guess it’s a testament to how much I love Ali Smith as an author that I just don’t care. The writing is unique and unusual, and there is enough to love in that and the characters she has created on the page, but I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I would imagine it might end up being a love it or hate it type of book, but I know that I loved it. Having said that, I would still say that Girl Meets Boy is better, and I would also say that in general I prefer her short stories to most of her novels, but I would still choose any of them over most other books I’ve read in the last ten years.

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