By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
There but for the, Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, Pp 357 (HB), £16.99
A simple but strange incident is the centre of Ali Smith’s latest novel There but for the. Miles, the largely invisible protagonist goes to a party in someone’s home along with his friend who was the invitee. Halfway through dinner he walks up the stairs and does not come down. Only the next day the people of that house realise that he has locked himself in, and is refusing to communicate except for ‘thank you’ and ‘need water’ kind of notes slipped under the door.
Miles’ coat along with his wallet, credit card and mobile is still on the chair where he sat. Genevieve Lee, in whose home Miles was, rummages through his mobile and gets the e-mail address of one Anna and writes to her asking her to come and help get Giles to talk. Anna later on realises that she had met Miles briefly several years ago on when they were part of a group of young people travelling in Europe as a prize for winning a writing contest.
The four words in the title of the book are the accounts of four people. ‘There’ is Anna’s narration, ‘but’ is the story of Mark, who was responsible for bringing Miles to the party. He is a gay photo researcher mourning an old lover. ‘For’ is the thoughts of an old and ill May Young, who is suffering from dementia. But she seems to have a connection with Miles. Nine-year-old Brooke Bayoude’s wisdom is presented in the last word ‘the.’ She understands Miles the most.
There but for the is a novel of emotions, of the things and people we pass by in our lives and the memories and moments we choose to cherish and retain. Ali Smith beautifully narrates the fears, the desires and apprehensions of human minds through these four ‘narrators.’ Not surprisingly Brooke is the wisest of all probably because she is the most innocent. Smith’s novels were shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize and she has authored several novels, all equally engrossing. There but for the is not novel one can read in a hurry. Take time and soak in the sentiments.
(Hamish Hamilton, An imprint of Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London, WC2R, ORI England,)