If you haven’t read There but for the by Ali Smith, you’re missing out on what Publishers Weekly calls one of the Best Books of 2011.
At a dinner party in the posh London suburb of Greenwich, Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table midway through the meal, locks himself in an upstairs room, and refuses to leave. An eclectic group of neighbors and friends slowly gathers around the house, and Miles’s story is told from the points of view of four of them: Anna, a woman in her forties; Mark, a man in his sixties; May, a woman in her eighties; and a ten-year-old named Brooke. The thing is, none of these people knows Miles more than slightly. How much is it possible for us to know about a stranger? And what are the consequences of even the most casual, fleeting moments we share every day with one another?
Brilliantly audacious, disarmingly playful, and full of Smith’s trademark wit and puns, There but for the is a deft exploration of the human need for separation—from our pasts and from one another—and the redemptive possibilities for connections. It is a tour de force by one of our finest writers.
What the critics are saying:
“Quirky, intricately put together. . . . A book about loss and retention: about what we forget and what we remember, about the people who pass through our lives and what bits of them cling to our consciousness. . . . Ms. Smith is brilliant at leaving things out and forcing the reader to make connections, so that, for example, the remaining words of the title phrase (‘grace of God go I’) go without saying. . . . Language here also proves itself to be dense and referential, capable of making unexpected connections and of imprinting itself feelingly on the mind in a phrase, a rhyme, a snatch of song lyric. . . . ‘Is it always but?’ Mark asks. ‘Can it be and?’ Miles replies: ‘Yeah, but the thing I particularly like about the word but, now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting.’ Much the same could be said of Ms. Smith’s novel, which on its odd and often indirect pathways never fails to repay attention.” –Charles McGrath, The New York Times
“Ali Smith loves words. She loves playing with them, calling attention to them, listening to them as if they were members of a vast extended family, each precious in its own right and she their fair-minded parent, determined not to play favorites. She can give the word ‘but’ such a star turn that you wonder why you’d ever taken it for granted. Smith’s love of language lights up all her books. . . . Smith’s wordplay never comes at the expense of the many other facets in her complicated creations—characters, places, ideas. . . . . A witty, provocative urban fable. . . . If you enjoy surprising, often comic insights into contemporary life, she’s someone to relish. . . . When the narrative turns to the elderly May, Smith’s expansive humanism returns in a wonderful, complex account of this vibrant character, one that touches on aging, family ties, death and ‘the intimate.’ . . . [A] lively, moving narrative. . . . . All the likable characters in There but for the enjoy a good verbal game, most happily with someone else. It is as though playing with language is what enables them to make their way through a complicated world. It’s a knack that might also be picked up, most enjoyably, by reading Ali Smith.” –Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times Book Review
“A beguiling ode to human connection shot through with existential wonder and virtuosic wordplay. If you fell for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, you’ll appreciate Smith’s formal twists and turns—and there’s more where There came from.” –Time Magazine
“It is with this word play, repetition, rhyme, and rhythm that Smith proves herself one of the ‘cleverist’—a British author at the top of her game who combines eccentricity and originality in equal measure. And, as I discovered when I heard her reading from the opening pages last week with a cadence rarely found in a fiction writer, There but for the is a story quite literally crying out to be heard. Here we have a novel, and a novelist, delighting in the joy of language itself.” –Lucy Scholes, Daily Beast
“Ali Smith’s weird and wonderful puzzle of a fifth novel is ostensibly about a dinner-party guest who locks himself in a spare bedroom and refuses to come out, inadvertently sparking a media frenzy. But the book—packed with jokes and random facts—is really about small stuff like life and death and the meaning of human existence, all told with sharp humor and real insight. The novel itself is a riddle with no solution, which is exactly the point: When you reluctantly come to the end, you can’t help going back to the beginning, trying to unravel this beautifully elusive book’s mysterious spell.” –A-, Entertainment Weekly
“Masterful. . . . Rapidly gains momentum, turning a simple tale into something ambitious and grounded. . . . As much as There But For The is about the connection and memory in a narrative sense, its love of language is even more impressive. Smith uses a constant internal monologue to depict her characters, without external narration, and they jump from word to word, pun to pun, or in one case, conversation with the imagined dead to conversation with the living. The wordplay is often a delight on its own, but Smith also uses it to great effect for revelations in the story.” –The A.V. Club
“A marvel of a novel, sweeping in purpose (what is the meaning of life, of history, of our presence or our absence) and magnetic in both the presentation of its cast and characters and the unfolding of its deceptively simple plot. . . . The writing in There But For The is lovely, the imagery sharp and moving, and the flow unstoppable. . . . I simply could not put this book down, other than to place it on my lap while I worked out the pieces of the puzzle. . . . Smith is also unabashedly aware and even proud of the quirks and thrills of the human mind, of how we can make up songs and puns and jokes, create connections out of chance meetings, and care, really really care, about both our history and our future.” –Nina Sankovitch, Huffington Post
“Like several recent novels, notably Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, this work is a collection of interlocking stories organized around a single theme and featuring multiple characters. . . . Smith…deftly satirizes our media-saturated environment, using an oddball cast of characters to point out the difficulty we have in making genuine human connections and demonstrating how beautiful and rare it is when we actually succeed. The passage of time is a constant underlying preoccupation as well, as befits the setting—home of the Royal Observatory, which established Greenwich Mean Time. . . . This is a delightful, beautifully written, touching novel that will strongly appeal to lovers of language and wordplay.” –Library Journal
“With its shifting points of view, Smith (The First Person: and Other Stories, 2009, etc.) displays a virtuoso gift for channeling her character’s inner voices. Happily, the book manages to wear its profundity lightly. . . . [An] offbeat exploration of the human need to connect with others.” –Kirkus Reviews