How do you get rid of a dinner guest who just won't get the hint? Yawning melodramatically, cleaning the kitchen, conspicuously checking your watch? I have been known to get up from the dinner table mid-conversation and stand expectantly by the front door. My guest continued droning even from halfway down the driveway. Eventually we just closed the door with a cheery, "Thanks for coming!"
It's a concept that Scottish writer Ali Smith explores in her latest novel There But For The. At a dinner party thrown by a smug social-climbing Londoner, a mild-mannered friend of a friend excuses himself just before the crème brûlée is served, goes upstairs and locks himself in a spare bedroom. He silently refuses to come out - for months.
Though the hostess, Genevieve Lee, and her husband and daughter never see him and he never talks, he begins to haunt their lives and test their relationships. (Though they do set up a sideline business cashing in on the public attention generated by their plight, by selling T-shirts and other merchandise.)
Says Genevieve in the book: "Sometimes I just sit outside the door behind which he is sitting and just say over and over to myself the word: 'Why?'"
Genevieve declares she is the peaceable and non-violent type but considers extreme measures. "A friend asked if we aren't tempted just to go ahead and use brute force and break down our beautiful and authenticated circa-17th century door and send in the police."
Since this blog began, it's been Christine who has immediately discovered the perfect feature read every month and me who has wavered for weeks before choosing mine. Not this month. As we mentioned in our Fiction Fix hotlist There But For The has attracted some of the best reviews we've seen. It wasn't a question of whether to read it, but of which of us got to it first. (Me! Ha!)
The Observer calls There But For The "a playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure".
Author Lionel Shriver, writing in the Financial Times, says Smith's version of the British dinner party "is a tour de force, a literary iteration of one of those wicked, Chardonnay-swilling skits on the television series Bremner, Bird and Fortune".
I confess I hadn't heard of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, and I haven't read any of Smith's earlier novels or short stories. I might have to rectify this, especially if There But For The lives up to its reception from the critics. Two of her novels, Hotel World and The Accidental were shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. The Accidental won the 2005 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award.
(A caution, though: Shriver's review of There But For The is mixed - she warns that the novel eventually loses its way. The Observer reviewer, Sarah Churchwell, also tempers her praise by warning that the guest remains an enigma to the end and almost nothing happens - "a deliberate choice to frustrate the reader's expectations, and one which many readers will find quite frustrating".)
Says Genevieve in the book: "I for one know that I will never see dinner parties in quite the same light again."
And, I hope, neither will I. I'll keep you posted over the next few weeks with my thoughts on this intriguing book.
Christine has chosen Caleb's Crossing by Australian author Geraldine Brooks for her feature read this month. Click here to read her introduction.