Simon Baker

The man who came to dinner

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.

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.

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.

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