Ali Smith: There but for the

It once occurred to me that the best books are those which absolutely divide opinion. I no longer think that’s necessarily true – if I ever did, beyond finding it a neat shorthand – but it came to mind when reading Ali Smith’s new novel. Look at the Amazon ratings for her last novel proper, the Booker-shortlisted The Accidental: an almost even spread from one to five stars. Yet I was a mixed sample myself with regard to that book: defending it from those who thought it too “complex” or (the red mist word) “pretentious”; but unconvinced by those who considered Smith the great white hope of contemporary British literature.

There but for the carries its fragmented intent from the title, so no one should be misled. The broken sentence suggests its own missing parts. That in itself – something unsaid but obvious – is a pretty good indication of what to expect with Smith. Martin Amis several years ago observed, in an attempt to take possession of a critic’s dismissal, that “someone once said of my work, and I didn’t mind it at all, that I deal with banalities delivered with tremendous force,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt that he really didn’t mind at all, “That’s fine by me.” His reclamation of the insult is not very convincing, but it’s one that might be applied to Smith also. In both The Accidental and her recent Canongate myths book, Girl Meets Boy, she has a masterly control of style but an unfortunate tendency to bash the reader over the head.

By that I mean that her sentences are just so, her structure is careful and contains enough gaps to make the reader do a manageable amount of work to fit things together. However in some important respects she leaves little to the imagination and even tends to impose thoughts on the reader. To explain that I had better go into more detail about the story. It’s somewhat high-concept, and it easily summed up by the opening sentence of the first full chapter, titled ‘There’:

was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.

The man is Miles Garth, and the book is structured in four parts from the viewpoints of four people who know him. There is Anna, who met him twenty years ago at university and on whom the dinner party hosts call to try to persuade him out of the bedroom. (He stays there for a long time.) There is Mark, the man who took Miles to the dinner party as his partner. (Miles is a vegetarian, but the owners of the house sustain him with slices of cooked meat under the door, as though appearing in a joke with no punchline.) There is May Young, an elderly woman nursing a decades-long trauma which Miles may have caused but also helped her recover from. (The lock-in lasts for months, with implausible levels of media interest, and reporters camped outside the house.) Finally there is Brooke Bayoude, a nine-year-old girl whose parents are neighbours of the dinner-party couple and who seems to be the wisest of all.

The book’s strengths are significant. Smith ties the stories together well, dripfeeding information through the viewpoints of her four central characters (the book’s true centre, Miles, doesn’t get a voice of his own but we learn plenty about him from the others). Her characters are sensitively drawn, though it’s an ability she is unwilling or unable to extend to the secondary cast, in particular the dinner party hosts and guests. Smith makes them ridiculous bourgeois stereotypes, working in Canary Wharf, obsessed with the fabric of their homes, insensitive to difference (homosexuality, vegetarianism); easy targets. Early on there is an email written by the dinner party host which made my toes curl with its petty mockery of the character’s language skills. It should not be beyond a novelist of Smith’s skill to extend empathy to unlikeable characters as well as likeable ones.

Her resistance to convention is her best quality. An allegorical prologue is one of the strongest scenes in the book. The story overall has a carefully implausible ring to it, and it is as futile to argue that the hosts should break down the (“18th century!”) door and remove Miles by force, as it would be to suggest that the characters in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go should have battled their fate. Their fate was all our fates, and Miles’s self-imposed isolation within a home says, “There but for the grace of God go I;” though Miles doesn’t go, he stays. Every story in the book has something to say about how we live with or without other people: we skip forward to see the effect Miles’s stand-off has on the family who unwillingly host him; we learn about Mark’s mother and the trauma she bequeathed to her household; we see May Young awaiting transfer to a nursing home, and dreaming of escape even at the far end of life.

There is also an interest in modernity, how we communicate now and the way our experiences shift as a result. The book’s present day is the last couple of years, and in the first part Anna observes the CCTV cameras everywhere and reflects on “what a paranoid, jealousy-maddened love affair just walking down any British street in 2009 resembled.” Smith’s attention to detail is her forte as a writer, and it is also evident in the production and paraphernalia of the book (the three dedications, the five epigraphs, the careful choice of types and formatting). Yet this penchant for detail might also be a weakness, if it is the cause of the coolness, and the lack of intimacy I felt at times. It is hard to locate the novel’s centre, and there is a sense that Smith is holding something back, tempering her talent in order to make her tantalising story neater and more palatable. She is at her best when giving the reader something to do, and taking risks. She should do it more, allow her delicious river of language to flow; publish and not be dammed.


  1. “…carefully implausible ring…’ that to me sums up a lot of excellent novels. Why should they be true evocations of life? For me the best art does not look like a photograph – in the same way maybe that is why I also like books that have some distance and a ‘…lack of intimacy…’

    Excellent review, as usual. I really shouldn’t come here. It makes me want to read each one.

  2. ‘…leaves little to the imagination and even tends to impose thoughts on the reader.’

    Isn’t that an apt summation of what tends to be wrong with 75% of all fiction? The inability to drop the reader’s lapels?

    I think the best writing imposes moods, not ideas, upon the reader, and I think you hit on the weaker end of the Smith suit. I think it’s a lack of confidence in the main, and a slight inability to give the benefit of the doubt to those picking up the book.

    Any yet: Amis, Bellow and others can’t help but plough internal furrows to the extent that little is left in question. Perhpas Ali Smith – a fine writer – needs to change tack?

  3. Yes indeed Tim. I expect there are some titles which get close to that, probably political books which attract people – supporters and detractors – who want to express their related views whether or not they’ve read the book. And that probably happens more on than (is that unfair?). But let’s go look for a work of fiction that gets that response…

    Thanks Clare and Lee. Yes, Smith is a lot like Amis in some ways, a great stylist but there’s something missing I think. Though I must say that I have felt more and more positive about the book since I read it (a few weeks ago).

  4. Brief digression: I recently had ‘a go’ at The Pregnant Widow. I recall your saying that the prologue was great and that you’d given up shortly thereafter. Astute words…

    I’d be surprised if Ali Smith ever topped the final part of Hotel World. Though that she is occasionally as good means she’s well worth keeping an eye on.

  5. Great review, John – as ever you’ve picked up on things I had completely missed when reading the book. Anyway, having been on the fence somewhat about “The Accidental” I must say I loved this one. I though it was witty, clever, playful and very very readable.

    Incidentally, am I supposed to be reading “Miles Garth” as an anagram (for “lethargism”) or am I reading too much into an odd name?

  6. I love that idea, David! (I wasn’t sure if ‘lethargism’ was a word, so I googled it and got lots of links saying ‘is lethargism a word?’)

    Like you I was somewhat on the fence with The Accidental and feel more positive generally about this one.

  7. Well, there were other things with names, like Gen & Eric (generic) and Anna whose name, like Abba, reads the same backwards, which is what made me a) take notice of names in the novel, and b) wonder about Miles’.

    One thing I really liked was the way Smith introduced the character of Brooke. She describes her through Anna’s eyes as a girl in a yellow dress over blue jeans sitting on the steps of a house, but when Anna goes to the door of the house the woman who answers is white. Which she expands on (perhaps unnecessarily) later in the book, but I thought that was such a clever way of telling us that Brooke isn’t white without using ‘black’ to label her. Likewise we know – long before we are told – that Brooke has an accent that allows the name ‘Brooke’ and the word ‘broke’ to sound similar (and of course it transpires that she’s from Yorkshire). Such good writing.

  8. Yes, she approaches things from the side – like May Young’s recollection of her daughter and the connection with Miles. So the reader has to keep their wits about them, but she is also easy to read. I think though what I didn’t like was the sense that so much of it was easy to fit together if you’re paying attention. I like nothing more than feeling a sense of curiosity, rather than completeness, at the end of a book. Of course just because I didn’t see it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there… And as you point out, David, we all notice different things, which is what makes it interesting to read others’ accounts of a book.

  9. I just picked up a copy of this yesterday that I’ll review for its September release here in the States. I was one of those people who did not care for The Accidental at all, so I am definitely curious to see what I will think of Smith’s latest offering. I am going to flag your review to read after I’ve finished the book myself. It looks like it promises to be a provocative read!

  10. Thanks Steph; I look forward to seeing what you make of it. I think Smith is a writer with whom, even if you don’t find her to your taste, it’s a pleasure to find someone making an effort to do things a little differently.

  11. I really enjoyed this one (although I confess that I like Ali Smith’s style generally). What I most like about Ali Smith’s style is her playful experimentalism. Many experimentalists seem to chop narrative about out of hostility towards, or irritation with, what’s orthodox, ordinary, accepted, conventional. I really appreciate the warmth that infuses Smith’s singing sentences, the sense of gentle mischief that informs her characterisations. Her books always make me laugh while they make me think, and I do so appreciate that combination.

  12. I have had a funny relationship with Smith on and off. I liked The Accidental, loathed Hotel World, then didnt like a short story collection, then did and loved Girl Meets Boy so I wasnt sure how I was going to take to ‘There Bur For The’ in fact the name made me nervous, was she going to try and be too clever? I absolutely loved it.

    I actually thought the awful couple who ended up with Miles in their house were just meant to be awful, no more no less, so you found the situation even funnier and odder. I didn’t want to empathise with them, they were horrid.

    Yes ok, it wasn’t that believeable in parts but thats also what worked for me. It was fun. Unlike her last novel proper The Accidental, I actually thought Smith got the book just right, surreal yet real, funny yet sad, quirky yet reigned in so as not to completely loose some readers. I thought it showed a lack of ego and a certain self awareness of writing which many others fail to do. I could easily be a million miles off though.

  13. I must admit, litlove and Simon, you are making me query my quibbles about the book. I suppose though my complaint about the “awful couple” being straightforwardly horrid is just that: Smith selects obviously offensive characteristics and loads Gen and Eric with them. No shades of grey (which ties into what I said in my review of Girl Meets Boy. Real life does have shades of grey and I think it’s a shame that her central characters – Anna, Mark, May and Brooke – were all more ‘real’ and complex than the dinner party hosts. They read to me as though Smith thought up one character dimension – middle-class snobbery and small-mindedness – and built them around that.

    But yes, she is fun as a writer, Simon, and that goes a long way. It’s an enjoyable read.

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