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There but for the

by Ali Smith

Reading Ali Smith’s latest novel feels like being the ball in a particularly vigorous game of squash between Wittgenstein and Oscar Wilde: she bounces you from one idea to another fluently, fast, wittily and without pause for thought.

The catalyst for the story is a man who comes to a dinner party, goes upstairs, ostensibly to use the bathroom, locks himself in a bedroom and won’t come out – ever. His hosts, Gen and Eric Lee (one of innumerable puns that litter the novel), are distraught until they are commissioned to write a column about the experience for a newspaper and find the ensuing hoard of pilgrims camping outside their Greenwich house are a useful source of income.

The guest, Miles, remains an enigma, to us as much as to everyone else. But (and that is one of the key words in this book. As Miles says, the thing he really likes about the word ‘but’ is that it “always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting.”), gradually, the main characters: Mark, who meets Miles at the theatre and takes him to the ill-fated dinner party; Anna K, who met Miles on a trip for essay-writing competition winners when they were teenagers – and hasn’t seen him since; Brooke, the very precocious child (and soothsayer) who is also present at the party; and May, dementia-sufferer, whose jumbled memories reveal a poignant link with Miles; all tell their stories in their different ways, thereby putting together the pieces of this elaborate, mind-bending, 3-dimensional jigsaw.

When I got to the end of this hugely enjoyable novel, as compassionate and funny as it is clever, I wanted to pick it up and start all over again.

Clare Chandler

Published by Hamish Hamilton. Hardcover. 384pp.

Read our interview with Ali Smith.

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