Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, 356pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
There But For The, By Ali Smith
Friday 10 June 2011
There is usually a moment in an Ali Smith story when I ask myself "where can this strangest of beginnings lead?" and another moment when I think "why is half of this chapter written in parenthesis?"
Then there are other moments when the book stops me in my tracks with its glittering imagination and its warmth, moments when I really do laugh out loud and penny-dropping moments when I turn a page and my eyes fill up.
It happened with Hotel World, The Accidental, and even in the few pages it takes Smith to tell her bizarre, bittersweet short stories. So it happened in There but for the, which has, as usual, a deceptively whimsical scenario as its dramatic pivot: a man – Miles Garth – attends a dinner party and just before the crème brûlée is served, he goes upstairs and barricades himself indefinitely in the host's spare room. "I am only relieved the bedroom is ensuite", says Genevieve Lee, whose bourgeois existence is punctured by the impostor ensconced in her immaculate Greenwich home.
The fascination with language – a central preoccupation in almost all of Smith's stories – is evident here, and much of the playfulness and punning is left to a precocious nine-year-old girl called Brooke. Some might find this linguistic tomfoolery tiring. Yet it is more than simple word play. The semantic and structural disruption, starting with the novel's unfinished title, reflects its anarchic intent – to disrupt the comfortably smug, middle-class sensibility personified by Genevieve and her dinner party set, with their stultifying prejudice and snobbery.
The anti-bourgeois subtext was clear in The Accidental, whose plot revolved around a charismatic, bohemian stranger who inveigled herself into the heart of a middle-class family and stole a lesbian kiss with the mother. Here, Smith sends up the same slice of self-regarding society and interrogates its value system. The dinner party conversation makes for brilliant satire, with secret infidelity, drunken shouting and tears around the table, it's a kind of contemporary Abigail's Party. Genevieve explains how she likes to invite a diverse crowd to her dinner parties: "It's always interesting to branch out. Last year they had invited a Muslim couple; the year before they had had a Palestinian man and his wife and a Jewish doctor and his partner." This year she invited a gay man ("Mark Palmer loves musicals. They tend to, don't they?") and a black couple ("the Bayoudes [had] recently moved here not from anywhere in Africa but from Harrogate").
At points, the book veers into out-and-out social satire, but then Smith steers it back to serious drama. Along with her cleverness and wordy wit, there is a bewitching romanticism to Smith's world, where people truly connect and leave tender imprints on each other. Both she, and they, also tell stories-within-stories. Miles explains the power of storytelling to Brooke: "Think about how a book is on a shelf, he said, just sitting there unopened. Then think what happens when you open it." A lot happens when you open this one.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Five-year-old Iris Grace is raising awareness of autism through her extraordinary paintings
- 2 Expert urges cat lovers to own just one animal each
- 3 Sainsbury's '50p challenge' poster telling staff to encourage customers to spend more placed in shop window instead of staff room
- 4 Yes, the iPhone 6 is a miracle, but it's Apple's tax affairs that deserve a double take
- 5 Car tax disc changes: Two days to go - and they affect you much more than just not displaying a piece of paper
The Simpsons death: Creator Al Jean would 'kill himself' before character like Homer or Lisa
Cilla, episode 3, ITV - review: Ed Stoppard steals the limelight as Beatles manager Brian Epstein
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'
The Jungle Book: A tale as old as time
The Simpsons death: Character killed off - but not the one you thought
Isis, we are told, is a 'clear and dangerous threat to our way of life'. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it
Exclusive: 'Putin's Russia has been my biggest regret,' says Nato's outgoing Secretary General
The Osborne Ultimatum: Chancellor’s benefits freeze bombshell will affect ten million households
There’s no excuse for Dave Lee Travis’s behaviour, but we need to keep a sense of proportion
Should gay sex be illegal? 16% of Britons think so
Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip in a month
- < Previous
- Next >