There but for the by Ali Smith

One of the only faults I found with this immensely pleasurable novel is its title, which, for all its poetic incompleteness, is undeniably awkward to say aloud.

Ungainly title aside, There but for the is a delightful read. The prose is light and playful, embodied in many ways by a charming nine-year-old character named Brooke, whose enjoyment of language is catching and whose curiosity is unparalleled. Several nested stories unfold as Smith maneuvers around the book’s central issue: Miles Garth, towards the end of an unpleasant meal at the home of the aptly named Gen & Eric Lee, wordlessly leaves the table and disappears into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to leave or even speak… for months. The premise calls to mind Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s La Salle de Bain (1985; here’s a review of the English translation), whose narrator listlessly retreats to his bathroom and remains fully clothed in the tub for days on end. Whereas Toussaint’s narrator is weary and defeated, however, Miles Garth is energetic and enigmatic, and seems to be judging the foolishness of the world around him.

One image I loved was that of May Winch (a subplot and two degrees of separation from Miles Garth) remembering a night when, as a young woman, she had been riding her bicycle in the dark when she hit something and flew over the handlebars into the road. She is fine but shaken, mainly due to the nature of the accident:

It was the dark taking shape, going solid out of nowhere in front of her. It wasn’t like when the bomb hit the ball-bearing factory next door to the shop and she’d been blown across the room backwards and hit the wall behind her. That had been different. This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she’d just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she’d done it herself somehow, hit the dark. (164)

May’s reaction to this moment of “hitting the dark” suggests that the fears that affect us most deeply are those that are invisible and internal, when we cannot point to an explosion or any other external cause and know what caused us pain. These kinds of truths can easily feel tired or facile, but Smith introduces them with grace and a lightness of touch that imbue them with freshness.

This lightness is the book’s hallmark, in the prose as in the characters. Smith creates a small circle of witty, like-minded characters whose paths cross throughout the stories; whenever two of them meet, you can almost see the glint in their eyes as they recognize themselves in one another. Both Brooke and Miles are among them. Brooke in particular is an improbable child of pure joy and intelligence, brilliant with language and wordplay and surprisingly attuned to the world around her. Puns send her reeling with pleasure, and she is obsessed with knowing and recording the facts of her own story. The last section of the book consists of Brooke’s internal monologue, and Smith does an excellent job of it, retaining just enough of a childlike quality to the language while also conveying Brooke’s tack-sharp curiosity and creativity.

There are many more characters and storylines that unfold like the origami plane described in the book’s preamble (“Outside, on its top, it looks like a plain folded piece of paper. Inside, underneath, it is packed tight into itself with surprising neatness like origami, like a small machine” [xiii]), and the whole thing holds together beautifully. I’ll definitely be adding Smith’s earlier novels to my reading list.

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