I've hosted some dinner parties that didn't go smoothly, but nothing to compare with the scenario presented by Ali Smith in There but for the. Between the main course and dessert, one of the guests goes upstairs, locks himself in the guest room, and refuses to leave. Awkward! But when the snarky dinner table conversation is described it crossed my mind that I too might have headed for the guestroom to escape it.
The guest's name is Miles Garth, the hosts had never met him before that evening, and no one seems to know much about him. In the novels four sections, “There,” “But,” “For” and “The,” Smith tells the stories of four characters whose paths have crossed somewhat tangentially with Miles. We learn a little about him – he seems to be a kind and gentle soul, if somewhat enigmatic.
This novel is not for those who like linear narratives. The sections each jump right into the middle of a story, and it takes a while to sort out the various connections. In some ways the book is like a puzzle, and the section that opens the book can be understood only at the end of the story. Smith's writing is clever and witty, but can also be tender and touching. It's clear she loves language and she challenges the reader to slow down and enjoy it. One character who embodies this love of language is Brooke Bayoude, a “preternaturally articulate” nine year old who is present with her parents at the dinner party and later forms a special bond with Miles. Unfortunately I occasionally found her just a little too articulate to be believed, and I felt Smith's wordplay was trying too hard.
In the end I felt exhilarated, amused and entertained but also a little dizzy.