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What would you do if, in the middle of a dinner party, one of your guests rose from the table, went upstairs and locked himself in your spare bedroom? Ali Smith presents such a scenario in her latest novel: in spite of coaxing from bewildered hosts and confused guests, Miles Garth refuses to leave Gen and Eric Lee's guest room and communicates only through notes he delivers under the door.

As a media frenzy ensues, a cast of characters from "Milo's" past emerges to shape the author's four chapters. Forty-something Anna Hardie met Miles in 1980 on a European Grand Tour; gay sexagenarian Mark Palmer, whose late mother speaks to him in verse, tried to pick Miles up at a Shakespeare festival; elderly dementia sufferer May Young benefited from Miles' help with grieving for her late daughter; and precocious ten-year-old Brooke finally breaks through to Miles with her wit and cleverness.

"There But For The" contains exquisite and heartbreaking scenes written in experimental, kinetic prose. Themes of time, isolation and identity provide a thought-provoking read and the non-linear story line engages the reader's intellect. However, Smith often overtaxes the narrative with exaggerated stream-of-consciousness, which distracts the reader from the plot's tension. Dialogue between characters tends toward the precious and inauthentic, filled with puns and double entendres. Brooke, especially, with her references to classic literature and obscure erotica, comes across as a literary tool as opposed to a genuine personality.
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on January 22, 2013
"There but for the" starts with the premise of a dinner party guest who gets up in the middle of the meal and quietly goes upstairs and locks himself into the hosts' spare room -- for months. A surprisingly warm-hearted story about how difficult it is to connect, to recognize how deeply we are connected, and the transformative magic that happens when we do.

"Imagine if all the civilizations in the past had not known to have the imagination to look up at the sun and the moon and the stars and work out that things were connected, that those things right in front of their eyes could be connected to time and to what times is and how it works." -p. 355

Smith does a marvelous job of showing the countless, sparkling, half-hidden, sometimes painful filaments that connect seemingly disparate people. Though the hosts of the dinner party had never met their new housemate before ("A stranger is living in our house against our will"), it becomes clear that there are profound, unconscious ties between these people. The idea of a stranger living in one's house "against one's will" is incredibly evocative. What Smith suggests to me is that below the surface of our lives there is an open invitation to the unknown and a recognition of the ways in which the deepest parts of ourselves are often strange to us -- and that we spend our lives alternating between running away and trying to connect, to come close, to welcome what is most deeply buried, often resented, largely feared. But when we accept and open up to this stranger inside us, the most incredible gifts are inevitably unleashed.

I wasn't crazy about all of the narrative voices (the poetic, punning, disjointed, hyper-clever style used to depict the child Brooke, in the final section, often made me skim -- it was somewhat annoying) -- but I nevertheless enjoyed this book very much as a whole. Easily my favourite of Ali Smith's works, by a long shot. Her usual stylistic pyrotechnics felt like the were really working in service to the heart of the story (as opposed to something else, e.g. maybe a way of coping with or distancing oneself from emotion). Overall, Smith feels much kinder, more open and forgiving as a writer than in her earlier books.

The Thames is brown and green today. It changes what it is every day. No: every minute. Every second. It is a different possible river every second, and imagine all the people under the water walking across to the other side and back to this side in the tunnel right now, because under the surface there is a whole other thing always happening.

(from my blog post: [...])
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