There But For The – Ali Smith

I have had an interesting relationship with Ali Smith before leading up to reading ‘There But For The’. I really liked her last novel ‘The Accidental’ (pre-blogging days) though was also delightfully puzzled by it, I loved ‘Girl Meets Boy’ and thought The First Person and Other Stories’ was a lovely collection. However I really didn’t get on with ‘Hotel World’, to the point where I didn’t finish it and one of her other short story collection I simply didn’t get. So I was intrigued to see which way my experience with ‘There But For The’ would go, I admit I was rather worried that the title might mean it was going to be a little experimental.

Penguin Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The premise of ‘There But For The’ is a rather simple one. Imagine throwing a dinner party and having one of your guests vanishing after the starter to lock themselves in your spare room for months. This is the very position that Jen and Eric (can you see what Smith has done there?) find themselves in after they invite Mark, a ‘homosexual’ they hardly know, who brings Mike along with him as his plus one even though he isn’t and he barely knows him. It is Mike that disappears and starts the lock in, with no seeming cause as to why.

What I really liked about how Smith wrote this was that she tells the story through people who know Miles and not through him himself. Most of them hardly know him that well at all, or have for certain small parts of his life up to the dinner party. I won’t say anything about them as it might give some of the joy of the ‘discovery’ aspect of the book away. This provides little insights and a certain distance which rather than alienate the reader actually creates intrigue and a little bit of mystery. I wanted to read on. It was a risk but its one that I thought Ali Smith pulled off successfully and it certainly kept me reaching for the book at any opportunity. I think I ended up reading this in about five sittings.

The other master stroke, which I know other people have questioned a little (and you can see in the comments of John Self’s post on ‘There But For The’ we have had a discussion about it), was the characters of Jen and Eric ‘The Hosts’. I don’t know if it was intentional, I can’t speak for Smith on this one, but it was like she poured everything that’s horrible about those smug middle class people  who have dinner parties and invite diverse people (sexuality and religion wise) they don’t know simply to almost see what happens, like they are an addition to the nights entertainment. I found this really comic and it added to the book’s fun feel.

As soon as you mention the word ‘fun’ in a novel people will mark it as not having enough literary merit. Not that I am saying that’s what I search for in books. I would heartily disagree with this, and in fact use ‘There But For The’ as a prime example of a book that is fun and is full of literary merit. Smith plays with words and the formation of language (typesetting etc), you can’t get more ‘literary’ than that, and has fun with it, the reader is made to engage with different forms of prose  you might be reading a newspaper cutting about Mike and then when Mark’s dead mother speaks in his head, brilliant character quirk, it is always in a rhyme.

Her characters are also very quirky and fully formed. One of the highlights of the book is where over about 40+ pages we are at the dinner party with all the guests on the evening everything happened.. This could have been really dull because it’s full of random conversation pieces, bits of politics, buts of ‘world issues’, drunken embarrassing over sharing and accidental stereotyping. It’s entertaining, its maddening, its funny, its sad, most of all its insightful – especially in how much is said by what’s unsaid. I had a feeling of ‘uh-oh’ when it started but I utterly loved it. I don’t think I have read anything quite like it. It’s a piece of writing that some authors would have given their writing arm to, well, write. It’s intricate.

“Out of nowhere Caroline starts crying and laughing at the same time. She says she wants to make a confession. Her confession is that she’s frightened of flying in aeroplanes. Hannah reaches across the table, knocks over an empty water glass and pats her hand. Jen starts shouting about CBT. Six sessions of CBT will sort you out, she says, only she shouts it, like a mad person, and she shouts it over and over, she has said it about six times, Mark thinks, either that or he is very drunk himself, which can’t be possible since he’s only had one glass and it was only half full. Hannah is shouting too, about how she has rights, and that one of her fundamental rights is the right to be able to take cheap flights, because her parents didn’t have that right, and that flying doesn’t harm the environment nearly as much as they claim. At this point, Hugo and Richard start free-associating a fantasy – Mark watches them slip into cahoots as if they’d not been being the least bit acrid with each other all night, as if cahoots is exactly the same as loggerhead”

I think ‘There But For The’ is a great novel and so far it’s my favourite of Ali Smith’s works to date that I have read. She has taken bits of her earlier work; great characters, observations, comedy, unusual narratives, prose and pacing and put them all together. It’s a tour-de-force as opposed to a hotch-potch. I don’t want to say this is her most accessible book, even though in many ways it is, because that makes it sound like its not experimental and it is. It’s just honed down, controlled and done without ego. I am very excited to see what she will come up with next. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

It’s interesting looking at ratings of her other books that she gets a full variation of opinion from great to not so. Who else is a fan of Ali Smith’s novels? Who isn’t? Why?


Filed under Ali Smith, Books of 2011, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books, Review

27 responses to “There But For The – Ali Smith

  1. Me and Ali Smith didn’t part as friends the last time I read one of her novels. I think it was The Accidental but as it was so long ago, I’ve forgotten. But I’ve been reading so much about her since that I’m tempted to try her again. See, I never give up on authors;P

    • I rarely give up on authors, though there have been a few like Martin Amis that it would be a real effort or recommendation to make me read again. I thought this merged all the best bits of Ali’s work so far!

  2. Sounds like a great read, Simon. I have only read The Accidental and quite liked it, although it was a very weird book! I’ve got a copy of There But For The lying in wait, but I’m going through a sick-of-new-fiction-phase, so might leave it for a bit.

  3. As you know, Simon, I liked this although not as much as you did. However, in that funny way that sometimes happens with novels, I do feel my affection for it growing as time passes (or maybe I should say my quibbles with it diminishing in importance). I do still feel frustrated that Smith didn’t make her ‘bad guys’ more subtle or rounded, but that’s a fine point and one that needn’t separate us overall in our admiration for her writing!

    • It is odd when you find that those niggles you had start to disappear, I think it’s a sign of a good book. I’d much rather than when you love a book initially and then it really really fades with you. I think that’s why I mull over books a while before I write them up. They need that consideration and thinking over period.

  4. gaskella

    I’ve never read Ali Smith, but feel this could be the place to start (or her Canongate Myths entry Girl meets Boy). Your write-up reminds me of one of my fave (TV) plays Abigail’s Party – ghastly but compelling.

    • Ghastly but compelling exactly describes the couple and their dinner party. It really made me laugh. As I am now on my ‘Taking Little Novel(la) Risks’ drive I would say try Girl Meets Boy which I thought was short and sublime.

  5. I love Ali Smith’s work and this was no exception. Even when I don’t ‘get’ some of her short stories, I still hold my breath in delight and astonishment at what she does in the telling of them. She is the only writer who has made me weep on an aeroplane.
    One of the many things I enjoy about her novels is their cyclical nature. They’re like a snake swallowing its own tail. When I get to the end, I want to go back to the beginning and read it again in the light of what I know now. And this is no exception, Because the beginning is actually the end, I think.
    I read this in a single day and I felt dizzy with the sheer pleasure of the language. If you’ve never tried Ali Smith, you are missing an extraordinary reading experience.

    • Thanks for commenting Val (lovely to speak to you on the phone yesterday, yes it’s taken me that long to get back to commenting on this post, sorry) and I think your comment of “One of the many things I enjoy about her novels is their cyclical nature. They’re like a snake swallowing its own tail. When I get to the end, I want to go back to the beginning and read it again in the light of what I know now” is wonderful. Why can’t I come up with posts that say such gems!

  6. michelle

    I love Ali Smith’s work too! Her forte is supposed to be in her short stories, and I do really like them although I don’t really get it for some of them. But it’s the way they are told that makes the reading an enjoyably experience. The collection of shorts in her first book Free Love, was quite brilliant. I also love her debut novel Like, which has a gentle yet powerful narrative told in two separate parts, of how the lives of two young girls crossed path & the long lasting impact / effects it has on both. Ali Smith is a gifted storyteller, telling you stories in fresh new ways, and leading you on to want to keep reading to see how the story unfolds. You may not get it sometimes, but you will feel that it doesn’t really matter.

    • Like Val said, even when you don’t get them 100% her stories are just told beautifully. I haven’t read Free Love or Like, maybe I need to go back to the start of Ali Smiths career and investigate?

  7. I love Ali Smith’s writing because she is SO different to everyone else out there, and yet she mixes this difference with great accessibility. She makes me feel and she makes me think, but most of all she makes me laugh, and I have such a soft spot for novelists that can do that.

    • I think that this is her most accessible novel, but not at the expense of changing her writing sensibilities. If anything I think this is a bit more crafted as a result maybe. I agree with the making you feel and making you think!

  8. You know those comments on the front of books that sa something like ‘enjoyed it from beinning to end’ or ‘a great novel’? Well I have noticed over a period of time that Ali Smiths name appears on ALOT of other novels and er thats where I first heard of her 😉

    I think this one sounds like a great start.

    • That’s a great point Jessica and one that I hadn’t thought about much until I read this comment. I have noticed some authors I haven’t tried before have quoteson several books that I like. Maybe I should try them?

      I did actually try a book, which shall remain nameless for now, that Ali Smith had a very enthusing quote on and it was dire. I felt a bit miffed.

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  11. ‘the accidental’ was one of the funniest, tenderest books i’ve ever read. my vote’s with ali

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