By Ali Smith
Published by Penguin
A simple story: during a dinner party at Gen and Eric Lee’s house in Greenwich, Miles enters the guestroom, locks the door and refuses to come out. Possibly, ever again.
What follows is a procession of acquaintances, who, some in indirect and others in more direct ways, allow us to catch a glimpse of the person behind the locked door.
There is Anna, who met Miles during a trip to Europe when they were teenagers. There is Mark, a gay man who met him at the theatre and invited him to that fateful dinner. There is an old lady whose daughter died at an early age. And, last but not least, there is Brooke, the young and inquisitive neighbour of the Lees.
Miles, who becomes a kind of hero for hordes of followers, is an invisible main character. Action is also almost non-existent while the novel fluctuates back and forth in time, in the same way that young Brooke hops on either side of the Greenwich meridian line.
The main dimension of this book is found in language. Ali Smith is a skilled wordsmith and regales us with puns, metaphors, rhymes and beautifully clever arrangements of words which, in the end, make one feel that it doesn’t matter that we’ll never know why Miles locked himself in a room and it doesn’t even matter if, by the last page, he will have come out of it or not.
Towards the end of the book, Brooke is looking at the river Thames, thinking:
It is a different possible river every second, and imagine all the people under the water walking across to the other side and back to this side in the tunnel right now, because under the surface there is a whole other thing always happening.
This sentence precisely summarises my experience of There But For The: don’t look just at the surface (the plot) because there is so much more going on beneath it (the language).
Is this an easy book with a conventional storyline? No. Does it matter? No.