Amazing Grace: A Review of Ali Smith’s There but for the…

There is no other writer whose new release I look forward to with the same anticipation as I do Ali Smith. For me it’s like waiting for a new Will Oldham album or Coen Brothers’ movie, the closer it gets the more excited I get as I know I’m going to be presented with something new yet of guaranteed quality. Smith’s latest, There but for the, fulfils expectations while confounding others and makes me love her all the more.
Smith loves language, and plays with it with more style and ease than any other writer I can think off. The only Scottish contemporary who comes close is Kevin MacNeil.  Names are never given without thought (there’s middle-class dinner hosts Gen and Eric, and a teenage punk who mistakenly becomes known as Anna Key), phrases have double, or often triple meaning, and you are never far from an acknowledged pun all delivered with a self deprecating wink. Here’s a short example:

“A conjunctiva is a [unreadable word] of the front of the eye, covering  the external surface of the cornea and the inner side of the eyelid.

A conjuncture is a combination of circumstances, esp one leading to a crisis.

But but?

And and?

(So simple.)

Conjunctions.

And conjunctions?

(So simple.)

The way things connect.”

But Smith’s mastery of language is only half the story, she has a wonderful ability to create characters who stay with you after the last page has turned, and often manages to do so within only a few paragraphs. In There but for the the story may at first appear slight. A man goes to a dinner party at the home of people he doesn’t know, then locks himself in one of their bedrooms never to emerge. From this premise Smith manages to present questions of class, politics, morality, social anxiety and the modern obsession with celebrity in a manner that never feels hectoring or patronising. The book reminds me of the best of Mike Leigh’s work in that the story is told through the lives of people who are recognisable but never stereotypical, and some of whom are extraordinary.
This applies to two characters in particular. First there is the enigmatic and charismatic Miles, a man who is central to the story yet spends most of it absent except in others hearts and minds. He links all the lives of the other characters in a similar manner to Amber in Smith’s earlier novel The Accidental, in that no one is sure just how he has brought them together. But the undoubted star of the show is Brooke Bayoude, a precocious young girl, inquisitive, open and whose intelligence often wrong foots the adults who come into contact with her, and at times makes them decidedly uncomfortable. In Smith’s fiction, as with Bill Forsyth’s films, children are seen and heard, and usually prove to be far more intuitive than the adults who they have to deal with.
If you love reading then you’ll love There but for the. The only thing I can imagine that it could be criticised for is that it rather peters out at the end when many may be looking for a neater conclusion, but when I’ve spent time in the company of Smith and her characters such things don’t bother me, in fact a neat endnig would have felt out of place in such a playful novel, a cop out which is not the Smith way. Instead she writes intelligently, cleverly and with a grace that means that she could never be accused of showing off. Like Brooke she is in thrall to the power of words, and also shares the youngster’s love of puns, similes and allusion all of which can give the illusion that the story which unfolds is surreal, but that’s because once more Ali Smith has managed to tell a story with more beauty, wit and understated skill than we are used to and have any right to expect.
As a wee bonus here is the song she worked on with The Trashcan Sinatras for The Ballad of the Books project. This is Half an Apple:

You can buy a copy of  There but for the from the Scots Whay Hae’s Local Shop, as well as all good bookshops.

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