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There but for the by Ali Smith

In the years 2009 and 2010, in a chichi house in the historic borough of Greenwich, London, the Lees are hosting a party for acquaintances. Mark asked Miles, a casual acquaintance to join him in this dinner party that Mark himself doesn’t really want to attend. Between main course and dessert Miles slips upstairs on an excuse to use the bathroom and locked himself in the spare room and refuse to emerge for weeks. For the time he is there the Lees resort to feeding him food through the door and contacted all his other acquaintances and even the press to help get Miles out of the house. Dubbed ‘Milo’ by the press, he becomes a 24-hour rolling news sensation with growing crowds camped outside his window waiting for the merest glimpse of a twitched curtain or an extent of Miles’ hand. Sometimes his host, wearing out of patience will slip a ham under the door. Miles is a vegetarian.

The book is broken up into 4 parts according to the book title There, But, For, The:

In the chapter There then continues the story of Anna whose email address kept in Miles wallet. As Anna memory return, she remembers at 17 at the school trip Miles drew Anna out of her shyness and reconnected her with her tour group, resulting Anna enjoying the rest of her Europe trip. Remembering that Miles said to her:

There was once, and there was only once; once was all there was..

In the chapter But and For, we are introduced to an elderly May Young, an elderly widow, closing in on death amid a slow demented haze, recalls her years as a WWII Intelligence agent and her daughter Jennifer. She also remembered every year she gets a visit or a postcard from a boy who is Jennifer’s friend. One day, she decided to ask a girl on community service to help her take her to Greenwich and ended up “soiling” the girl’s male friend new car.

The whole point is, we can forget. It’s important that we forget some things, otherwise we’d go round the world carrying a hodload of stuff we don’t need. – page 116

In the chapter For and The, we saw Mark, a gay man trying to wriggle himself out of embarrassing conversation and a precocious 9-year-old Brooke Bayoude, a highly intelligent but truant-happy girl obsessed with intricate wordplay, fascinated with history of time and ask lots of questions. Brooke chronicle Miles’ confinement and is the only one who has any contact with Miles.

I especially love the pun and wordplay that Brooke always seems to come up with.

Why is the theatre always sad? Brooke said.

Because the seats are always in tears, her father said. – page 293

The fact is, every tree that ever lived or lives has a history just like that tree has. It is important to know the stories and histories of things, even if all we know is that we don’t know.

The fact is, history is actually all sorts of things nobody knows about. – page 295

Mum, she says.

What now? May says.

No listen. I need to ask you this question. What are human beings for? Jennifer says.

For? May says. What you mean, for?

What’s the point of human beings? I mean like what are we for? She says

Um, May says. The point of human beings. Well, it’s for looking after each other. We’re here to look after each other. – page 258

The thread of the stories and characters around Miles who chose to self-incarcerated reminded me of the movie Crash (2004 film) that all of us are joined by a six degree of separation and that we are somehow related to one another. At the core of the book is a feeling that while our means of communications have become more sophisticated, slicker and quicker, true connections are harder to maintain. The problem for me was that the book started out strong but by the last 50 pages it was filled with lots of disjointed ideas and historical anecdotes that I lost some interest and resort to skimming it through.

I only ever read one book by Ali Smith – Girl meets boy which I enjoyed a lot. This novel is quirky, thought provoking and I had a few laughs but it is rather obscure and it is not until I step out and find out what the expert said about the book that I totally get it.

From the Guardian UK:

There but for theAli Smith deploys the conceit to satirise contemporary culture – and to ask difficult questions about history, time, epistemology and narrative. The result is a playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure, with some premeditated frustrations thrown in for good measure……

That sense of atomisation is at the novel’s absent centre, around which orbit its fleeting, appealing and painful observations on the temporary permanence of our lives.

If in doubt, I’ll refer you to the first quote from the first page of the book:

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. – George Orwell

One of the rare occasions I couldn’t remember a book title easily (because it makes no sense!). A book with noble intent, but fails to hold my interest at the very end.


Longlisted for Orange Prize 2012.

Hardback. Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Imprint of Penguin) 2011; Length: 357 pages; Setting: London.  Source: Co-worker Aisling. Finished reading at: 16th March 2012, Friday.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


31 thoughts on “There but for the by Ali Smith

  1. Wow! What an ending quote! “To be defeated and broken up by life” – whew, that is powerful. Is this book fiction? Or a novel? I usually get irritated with books that strive to be very smart, but end up only being frustrating. Reading should be an exercise of intellect, true, but not the exhaustion of all intellect! 😉 I wonder if you would like David Almond’s “My Name is Mina?”

    Posted by soulmuser | March 17, 2012, 2:41 am
    • Soul,

      “Reading should be an exercise of intellect, true, but not the exhaustion of all intellect! ” Wow, what a quote! The last bit really test my intellect. what with all the contemporary pop culture reference and historical facts, I got a irritated…. The book is a novel. The front bit is alright but sad that it should end so disappointingly.

      I suppose I would only read such book only when I’m told it’s going to be historical anecdotes full of clever facts, like Bill Bryson’s “A short history of everything” or “At home”.

      I may like “My Name is Mina” but I don’t quite warm up to mystical creature… I would read for curiosity if you say it’s good!

      Posted by JoV | March 17, 2012, 10:47 am
  2. I’m reading the majority of the Orange long-list this year but I’ve passed on this one. Reading your review, I think that was the right decision for me. The only other Smith book I’ve read was The Accidental, which I thought was only OK.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this one 🙂

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | March 17, 2012, 3:46 pm
    • Sam,
      I suppose Ali Smith’s books are the sort where if one really get it, one really fall in love with it. Maybe I don’t get it. I’m worried about The Accidental now.. 😦
      Always glad to be of any help. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | March 17, 2012, 7:48 pm
  3. This book sounds great! I find the title a bit presuming but the story itself sounds good. One for the list!

    Posted by Leeswammes | March 17, 2012, 5:43 pm
  4. First of all: I like your new layout 🙂 I’ve got this book on my to-read (Orange) list, but disjointed storylines do not really entice me 😦 I’ll give it a go, because the plot sounds good, but I’m not expecting a lot from it…

    Looking forward to your review of Wolf Totem!

    Posted by Chinoiseries | March 17, 2012, 9:02 pm
  5. I should try one of these one day – but then I say the same about Zadie Smith too. maybe it’s all Smiths…

    Posted by Tony | March 18, 2012, 8:42 am
    • Tony,
      lol :D… then you would lose out a lot then! Smiths is a common last name. I won’t blame you if you don’t read Adam Smith though. Do try Ali Smith or Zadie, I’m sure you would like them.

      Posted by JoV | March 18, 2012, 8:49 am
  6. Good review! Have had this on my to-read list for a while – sounds possibly a bit challenging, but I actually quite like disjointed storylines so I think I’ll give it a go 🙂

    Also, just wanted to say – you mention that the title doesn’t make sense to you. I could be wrong on this as I haven’t read the book, but I assume it’s a reference to the expression “there but for the grace of God go I” – which essentially means that, when seeing others suffering misfortune, you know that for with a twist of fate it could easily be you in the same situation. There’s a fuller explanation here, if you’re interested: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/there-but-for-the-grace-of-god.html. It’s often shortened to just “there but for the grace”, so I guess Ali Smith has just shortened it further – possibly that fits with the fractured, fragmented nature of the book?

    Anyway, sorry if I’ve misinterpreted your comment and you actually already knew all this! Just thought you might be interested to know, if you weren’t already familiar with the saying.

    Posted by woodsiegirl | March 18, 2012, 12:39 pm
    • Woodsiegirl,
      Thanks for the explanation. 🙂 I understand “there but for the grace of God go I” or “there but for the grace” better but that’s the good thing by saying that the title didn’t make sense to me so that I have you to explain it to me. Thanks again and thanks for the first comment! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | March 18, 2012, 9:25 pm
  7. It is interesting to hear that you didn’t get this book until you read about it in the press. I didn’t get this book at all. I gave up on it as I thought it was trying to be too clever and It annoyed me. I’m sure there is a lot of fantastic stuff in this book (as your quotes prove) but I don’t like books that require such hard work to understand what is really meant by the symbolism. I’m quite pleased you gave it 3.5 stars and in abandoning it I’m not missing out on a book you love.

    Posted by Jackie Bailey (@farmlanebooks) | March 19, 2012, 11:22 am
    • You are right. If a book only appeals to a certain group of people, that’s fine with me. I read many clever books (esp non-fictions) but the messages get across beautifully and succinctly. Making the less clever people like me understand a complicated concept. That’s what a great writer do.

      Skimming a book is bad for me. and I ended up skimming the last part of this book. I gave it 3.5 stars because when I got it, I really appreciate the message that the book is trying to convey. It’s a shame it can’t be more simpler. I’m not good with symbolism!

      Posted by JoV | March 19, 2012, 12:49 pm
  8. I won this book from another blogger. I have high hopes for it, as it sounds like something I would like, but I am concerned that it didn’t hold your interest.

    Posted by Ti | March 19, 2012, 5:43 pm
  9. After finishing this one, I have no doubt I’m in awe of Ali Smith. I simply doubt if I actually liked the book. I’m still formulating my review, but you bring up many of my thoughts on it. It’s curious, quirky book, and I’m so glad to have read it, but I can’t think of a single person I would actually recommend it to.

    Posted by nomadreader | March 20, 2012, 2:22 pm
  10. Ali seems to give unique titles to her books. I’ve never read any from her offerings but would hav to after reading your review.

    Posted by Geosi | March 21, 2012, 12:23 pm
  11. This is an author I am in two minds about reading, have heard good and bad about them. Your views of this book affirm that maybe again not an author for me.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | March 22, 2012, 12:42 pm
  12. Very interesting review. Sounds to me like a frustrating book, the sort I would expect to love and end up being disappointed by. Smith seems to like these odd titles – I remember one of her short story collections was called Other Stories and Other Stories 🙂

    Posted by Andrew Blackman | March 22, 2012, 9:20 pm
    • Andrew,
      Thanks for dropping by. The book started strong but became some sort of a ramble towards the end. Perhaps it’s just me, you may like it. Other Stories and Other Stories sounds odd!

      Posted by JoV | March 22, 2012, 9:39 pm
  13. I’m never quite sure if I’ve read anything by Ali Smith. Maybe I did and it just didn’t sit well with me and so I have completely forgotten it! I thought the plot of this one sounded interesting enough my ambivalence towards Smith’s books hasn’t quite given me enough of a push. Maybe one day…

    Posted by olduvai | April 4, 2012, 3:51 pm


  1. Pingback: March 2012 : Wrap-up! « JoV's Book Pyramid - April 10, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
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A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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