Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Escaping into 'There But For The'

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Book cover of There But For The. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of There But For The. Photo / Supplied

Occasionally I get a strong urge to hide under a duvet and wait for the world to go away. I suspect it wouldn't work, in the same way travelling to another country isn't always the escape you wish it was. You can leave your environment but you can't get away from your own thoughts, which are often the very things you need a break from. If anything your anxieties are amplified when you have too much time to think about them.

So is the character of Miles Garth in Ali Smith's novel There But For The escaping the world or facing up to it when he locks himself in a stranger's spare room during a dinner party and stays put for months?

Don't expect to find the answer within the pages of this sharp, playful and pacey novel - I've read reviews warning that the absence of Miles is merely a conduit to spark internal journeys in a patchwork of other characters, rather than a mystery to be resolved.

I'm about a quarter of the way through the book and I suspect that this is a classic short-story writer's novel, where we deal with each character in a sequential story, and the thread of the plot is tied together more by theme than by events.

(Smith is an accomplished short story writer.)

The first character we follow is Anna, who is called in by the rattled (and deliciously penned) social-climbing homeowner Genevieve when Genevieve finds Anna's number in Miles' phone. Anna is escaping from the world too, in a way. She's chosen unemployment over a job in which she was expected to make other people redundant.

At first she barely remembers Miles, whom she met on a trip to Europe as a teenager some 20 years earlier. But after she walks away from the house - in disgrace, having failed to entice the mystery man from the room - her memory forms our first picture of Miles, as a precociously witty and articulate teenager.

Anna begins to think about her life - and come back to life herself - as she ponders Miles' motivations: "Imagine the relief there'd be, in just stepping through the door of a spare room, a room that wasn't anything to do with you, and shutting the door, and that being that ... Would all the things you'd ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you? ... Was it some wanky kind of middle-class game about how we're all prisoners even though we believe we're free as a bird, free to cross any shopping mall or airport concourse or fashionably stripped back wooden floor of the upstairs room of a house."

I might not find the answer in the book, but I think I'm going to enjoy the journey. I'll share it with you as I continue to read it over the next few weeks.

But first, some housekeeping. When my mother-in-law watches a movie, she gets very concerned about the logistics. Her overriding reaction to the Lord of the Rings trilogy was to wonder where the great armies did their ablutions. So, Jenny, this is for you, since I know you'll be wondering: Miles had the foresight to choose a room with an en suite. And his reluctant hosts are pushing wafer-thin food under the door, chiefly ham and turkey because they know he's vegetarian and don't want him getting any more comfortable than he evidently is.

Thanks for all the thoughtful - and fun - questions you submitted for our authors to answer, in this month's competition. Copies of There But For The and Christine's read, Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, will be going out to our winners: Helena Yang, Di Shaw and Dorothy Vinicombe. Look out for Geraldine Brooks' answers to your questions on Tuesday.

- NZ Herald

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