There but for the is a novel spilt into four parts, all giving a voice to different characters. The man who links all the other persons together is Miles. He sets the novel in motion by locking himself up in a stranger’s spare bedroom during a dinner party and by refusing to leave. His action triggers all kinds of events, from an old friend remembering the past to a huge, festival-like gathering outside his window.
Even though this sounds strange (good strange), this novel deals with very real themes. It’s about loss, love, history, memory and most importantly (for me) about empathy, about connecting with people.
There but for the isn’t my favourite novel by Ali Smith (that’s still How to be Both), but this one is placed high on my general list of favo books. What immediately grabbed me when I opened this book was the first sentence:
“The fact is, imagine a man sitting on an exercise bike in a spare room.”
This mixture of facts and imagination is present throughout the novel. Can you say that history is made out of facts? Or is it an imagined fact? What are facts anyway?
But this book isn’t just contemplating these great themes of life. No, There but for the is also very moving and at times hilarious. Take for example the character of Brooke. She is a ‘too smart for her own good tween’ and gets the last chapter of the book. In this chapters many, many jokes are told:
Tell me, why is a theatre always sad?
Because the seats are in tears.
You cannot but love Brooke.
I know Ali Smith’s books can look scary sometimes. They don’t include quotation marks and Smith often uses the stream-of-consciousness technique, but the trick is just to let go off all of those conventions. Read chapters in one sitting, or the whole book if you’ve got the time, and let the rhythm take over – if this sounds too dotty, too Luna Lovegood for you then just think of it like this: Stop dreading it. Just read. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!