‘There but for the’ by Ali Smith

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‘The fact is, every tree that has ever lived or lives has a history just like that tree has. It is important to know the stories and histories of things, even if all we know is that we don’t know.

          The fact is, history is actually all sorts of things nobody knows about’.

There but for the by Ali Smith, Pg.295

I am having a slight obsession with Ali Smith right now. I love how she manages to make her writing both current, yet timeless. She manages to encapsulate the world we are living in right now, whilst also linking it to the past and grounding her work in the ‘classic’, timeless tradition. I can imagine Smith’s novels will be read and studied in the future and will never lose their appeal, which is always a tricky thing – I find – for a contemporary writer to do.

There but for the tells the story of a man called Miles Garth who, at a dinner party, locks himself into the spare room. From there he refuses to leave for months, which causes a sensational national news story and brings together an otherwise disparate community. What is interesting about this novel is that none of the narrative is told from the viewpoint of Miles himself. In fact the characters that narrate the story have only briefly, fleetingly met Miles, whether recently or decades ago. This adds to the mysteriousness of Miles or ‘Milo’, as he is known in the press and the curious crowd that gathers around the house to capture a glimpse of him from the window.

‘How adaptable human beings were without even realising it, slipping blindly from state to state’.

There but for the by Ali Smith, Pg.91

Split into four main parts – ‘There’, ‘But’, ‘For’ and ‘The’ – Smith only ever sheds ‘glimpses’ of this Miles to the reader through characters whose lives have been briefly touched by him in one way or another. A woman he met on a European trip as a teenager, the man who invited him to the dinner party after meeting him at a theatre show, an elderly lady he met annually after the death of her daughter at the age of 16 and the young Brooke – my favourite character – who is the daughter of one of the couples who also attended the same dinner party, all tell what they know (or don’t know) about the elusive Miles. Yet, even as we come to the end of the story there are still many gaps in the narrative. We never do find out, concretely, why Miles decides to lock himself into a strangers spare bedroom indefinitely, yet it’s superfluous to the enjoyment of reading the novel. As Miles mentions to Mark, the guy who brought him to the dinner party: ‘[…] 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’. Ali Smith concerns herself more with these side-stories, these wanderings, rather than the main impetus that sets off the events which occur in the story.

‘Imagine if all the civilisations 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 to time and to what time is and how it works’.

The but for the by Ali Smith, Pg.355

The setting is also of considerable importance in There but for the and one which I can completely resonate with, considering the fact that I was born and lived there for most of my life. It was with a pleasant surprise that I picked up a novel set in my hometown of Greenwich, London, but aside from its personal importance, Greenwich is also where time ‘began’ in very simplified terms. Home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), this maritime town evokes the centuries of people observing time and how this time plays into history and memory.

Again, Ali Smith begins with a simple, albeit far-reaching, premise which spawns many ‘side-notes’ ranging from time, history, memory, art, books, modern technology and community. With word-plays and experimentation with form, Smith creates another distinctive masterpiece that is unlike any other author writing today.

‘That was unimaginable, not remembering where a book has come from! and where it was bought from! That was part of the whole history, the whole point, of any book that you owned! And when you picked it up later in the house at home, you knew by looking and having it in your hand, where it came from and where you got it and why you’d decided to buy it’.

There but for the by Ali Smith, Pg.297

I thought I would end with an apt quote from the 10-year old Brooke whose narrative ends the novel. I read it as a sneakingly small argument against ebooks in the way that it talks about the importance of the hard-copy version of a book. One that you can pick up and open at random. One that has a history, a place of origin, a memory, a reason for being in your house, on your shelf.

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