Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: 'There But For The' review

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Photos / Supplied
Photos / Supplied

When I was a third of the way through Ali Smith's There But For The, I suspected I would find it ultimately unsatisfying.

At that point it had become clear that the book was divided into four linked stories - each following one character at the periphery of the life of Miles Garth, the man ostensibly at the centre of the novel.

I have nothing against short stories, but I prefer novels. I like the luxury of the slow reveal of character, I like a plot that develops through chapter after chapter, I like a book that becomes a companion over a week or a month or even longer. I began to wonder if this novel, the fifth from the Scottish novelist, would rely too heavily on her proven talent for the short story.

From reading other reviews of There But For The, I already knew not to expect a resolution in the central plot - in which Miles quietly locks himself in a spare room halfway through a dinner party at a stranger's house and stays there for months. The Guardian warned that Miles remains an enigma and almost nothing happens, "a deliberate choice to frustrate the reader's expectations, and one which many readers will find quite frustrating".

Usually I try not to read too much about a book before opening it but in this case I was grateful for the heads-up. It meant I could set aside the desire for plot resolution and enjoy the ride.

And what an enjoyable ride. Smith has that short story writer's talent for diving into a character's viewpoint and immediately establishing a rapport between character and reader.

Her first main character is Anna, a drifting 40-something who met Miles as a teenager and whose email address is unaccountably programmed into his mobile phone, which he left in his hosts' living room. She is contacted by the panicking hostess to see if she can coax him out. She can't, but her memories begin to paint a picture of Miles as a generous, witty and confident young man.

Next is Mark, who invited Miles to the dinner party having met him briefly at the theatre (and having tried unsuccessfully to pick him up). Then comes a dying elderly woman, May, whose connection to the story is revealed only after she exits it. Last comes Brooke, a nine-year-old girl-genius neighbour who breathlessly ties up the many hanging threads.

Mark's chapter flashes back to the story of the dinner party, a disconnected and awkward affair that anyone in his or her right mind would want to escape. A clear delineation emerges between the characters with whom our sympathies lie and the excruciating collection of bores who round out the cast.

Smith paints the latter as caricatures, who become more clichéd as the wine goes down. Her descriptions veer uncomfortably close to heavy handedness, but the overall effect is hugely entertaining - for the reader, if not for the more reasonable dinner guests.

There's the outspoken homophobe and misogynist who openly bickers with his wife and is having a secret affair with Mark. There's the social-climbing hostess who could be the Hyacinth Bucket for the 21st century.

There's the narrow-minded businessman who drones about his job and delights in offending others: "it strikes me all sensible people will feel the same way as I do ... and if they don't they ought to"; and his wife, a stubbornly ignorant blonde who thinks a sweatshop worker is someone who makes sweatshirts and wails that Brooke's mother is "acting superior" by using such words as "contemporary" and "philosophy".

Each of the four quarters of the novel could probably work well as a stand-alone short story revolving around the character at the heart of it. The characters pop off the page, and each tale is doused in reflection and humour, and challenges the reader to redefine the concepts of presence and absence. Who is present and who is absent: the mute dementia patient May, or the teenager who sits in the corner of her room tapping incessantly on her internet phone? The thoughtful man who disappears from the party or the hostess who anxiously tries to limit the conversation to shallow small talk?

With the warnings of the lack of plot resolution at the back of my mind, I set out to enjoy this book as a series of short stories. And I did. But I was happy to discover that the elements of the novel tied together more neatly than I had anticipated.

To cut a long story short, There But For The is a brilliantly characterised and hugely entertaining novel that reveals itself slowly. It's the most enjoyable book I've read so far this year.

So there ends a very successful August. On Friday Christine will introduce her September feature read, The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon, and I'll be here on Tuesday to tell you about my pick, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

To enter the draw to win a copy of The Story of Beautiful Girl, click here and tell us what your favourite classic American novel is, and why. Competition closes Tuesday September 6.

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