There But For The Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, pp.357, 16.99

Each year Genevieve Lee holds an ‘alternative’ dinner party, to which she invites, along with her friends, a couple of people she wouldn’t ordinarily mix with — a Muslim, say, or homosexual.

Each year Genevieve Lee holds an ‘alternative’ dinner party, to which she invites, along with her friends, a couple of people she wouldn’t ordinarily mix with — a Muslim, say, or homosexual. At her latest party a guest named Miles, whom she’s never met before, locks himself in the spare room, and refuses come out. In the first of the novel’s four sections, Genevieve contacts Anna, who had met Miles during a holiday in 1980, hoping that a familiar voice will persuade him to leave, but it does not. Once outside, Anna recalls the holiday, remembering her own gaucheness, and Miles’s offbeat charm and warmth, but just as we are getting to know her, part two begins, leaving Anna behind.

In this, the strongest section, we meet Mark, a gay man who sits next to Miles at the theatre and, after a chat, invites him to the dinner party. Mark is a likeable and melancholy person who is haunted by memories of his late mother, who killed herself when he was a child.

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The dinner party is played out in full; Ali Smith adroitly captures the growing tipsiness, the fragmented discussions, the attempts to gloss over ignorance, and the inevitable modern-art-is-rubbish conversation (which ‘probably takes place every time these people meet for dinner like this’). Occasionally it veers towards parody in its bashing of the white middle class (two black and evidently English guests are asked if they’d ‘ever seen a real tiger back home’, which might be believable had this been set in 1909 rather than 2009), but in general the portrayal is superbly done.

By this stage – 200 pages in – There But For The has almost uniformly succeeded. If we exclude the flimsy set-up, we have a thought-provoking, witty novel with an enigma at its centre.

Part three, unfortunately, is a 70-page diversion into the life of an irrelevant elderly character, which seems like a free-standing (and less good) story. A snippet of information about Miles is gleaned from it, but at the cost of a sizeable lull.

Part four recovers, though not well enough. The focus moves fleetingly back to Miles, who has been encamped at Genevieve’s for months and who is now an object of international interest (Genevieve is making good money from selling ‘Milo’ T-shirts), but the real focus here is Brooke, a precocious nine-year-old girl who attended the dinner party with her parents. Her character worked well as one of the guests, but is less useful as a narrator of sorts (the prose is in the third person but written largely in Brooke’s voice). Partly it’s her continual Joycean wordplay and quotes from great literature, which make her seem precisely like a literary writer’s impersonation of a child. Partly it’s that we have yet another character’s life and concerns (Anna and Mark being forgotten, bar the odd name-drop), which will leave many readers wanting to know much more about much less.

There But For The is, overall, as baffling as Miles’s actions. It is funny and clever, but it misses the mark as often as it hits it. It gives a good deal of pleasure, but leaves you with a question that may also have plagued Miles during his endless vigil: what is it all about?

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Fiction, Novel