Review 1577: There but for the

I have enjoyed most of what I have read by Ali Smith, but at first the premise of There but for the seemed a little too absurdist for me. The novel is really four separate stories that are related to the event in the first story and share characters.

In “There,” Anna is summoned by Gen Lee to Gen’s house, because Gen found Anna’s contact information in Miles’s jacket pocket. At a dinner party at Gen’s, Miles, whom Gen does not know, locked himself in a guest room and refuses to come out. At first, Anna barely remembers Miles from a trip to Europe when she was 18, 30 years before, but then she remembers his act of kindness.

In “But,” Mark Palmer, who took Miles to the Lee’s dinner party, recounts his initial meeting with Miles, notable for Miles’s kindness, and invites him to Lee’s party. Some of the conversation of the party is marked by astounding stupidity, rudeness, and bigotry by some of the guests, so much so that I found it hard to believe, especially as a mixed-race child was there.

In “For,” a dying old lady is determined not to be sent to a depressing nursing home she visited long ago. After the death of her youngest daughter, she has been visited every year by one of her daughter’s friends, even though she doesn’t like him. This year he doesn’t come, because he is Miles, locked up in the Lee’s spare room, outside of which has formed a circus-like gathering of observers. But Miles has sent a substitute.

In “The,” Brooke, a precocious nine-year-old who also attended the party, recounts her ideas and memories, particularly a meeting with Miles.

Almost despite myself, I got caught up in this novel even when impeded by its verbal gymnastics, which were sometimes amusing but often annoying. I had a great deal of trouble, though, with the semi-stream-of-consciousness approach to the last section. At first, it was fun, but eventually I got tired of it and felt it could use some editing.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project and found it inventive but a bit overwhelming. Too many ideas are thrown out to us, in the end.

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5 thoughts on “Review 1577: There but for the

  1. piningforthewest November 13, 2020 / 2:53 pm

    I also have a James Tait Black Project but I plan to try to read them all although I suspect that some of the older winners are really difficult to get a hold of.

    • whatmeread November 13, 2020 / 3:33 pm

      I see. You are reading all the winners, while I am reading the shortlists from 2010 on. Good luck finding them all! You should put the link to your page where you’re keeping track directly on your page. If you read any of the books I’m reading, I’ll post your links on my James Tait page just like I do with Helen at She Reads Novels for the Walter Scott Prize, if that’s all right with you.

    • whatmeread November 13, 2020 / 3:35 pm

      Looks like so far you haven’t read any that I have for the prize, but you’ve read a few that I have for other reasons.

      • piningforthewest November 13, 2020 / 4:58 pm

        I have been meaning to add a link in my sidebar for yonks, I’ll get around to it sometime soonish.

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