Ali Smith - There but for the (4 stars)

Ali Smith - There but for the (review)

The author's new novel deals wittily with the difficulties of modern communication

(Hamish Hamilton)

You rarely get bombs or tornados or motorway pile-ups in Ali Smith books, but the results of inner turmoils within her characters can often be just as devastating. In There but for the, nuances and shades and intricacies stack on top of one another to reveal some valuable truths about the way we live now. When Miles Garth is brought to a dinner party by a friend, he slinks off in between courses and locks himself in a lavishly decorated spare room, refusing to emerge for weeks. Dubbed ‘Milo’ by the press, he becomes a 24-hour rolling news sensation with growing crowds camped outside waiting for the merest glimpse of a twitched curtain.

This mysterious scenario has curious knock-on effects as we are introduced to other people’s stories. There’s May Young, an elderly widow, closing in on death amid a slow demented haze and awaiting a visit by someone she assumes will be the Grim Reaper in disguise, and ‘clever-clever’ Brooke Bayoude, a highly intelligent but truant-happy girl obsessed with intricate wordplay and the self-incarcerated man.

At the core of the book is a feeling that while our means of communications have become more sophisticated, shinier and quicker, true connections are harder to maintain. The sense that we are now out of touch with nature is heightened by the images of dead animals (shot rabbits, a dog run over and left in the middle of the road to suffer further indignities) and multiple references to all kinds of birdlife. Our physical and philosophical breakdowns are sharply satirised in this almost mystical narrative dreamed up by one of contemporary literature’s most deft and astute analysts of human nature. Another Booker nomination may well await.

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