There But For The – Ali Smith (2011) This blog post may contain spoilers.
Let me start by saying, explicitly, that this will probably (definitely) not be an unbiased review. I think the absolute world of Ali Smith and adore pretty much every piece of her writing that I’ve ever stumbled across. This book was no exception.
One of my favourite things about Ali Smith’s writing is the way in which she creates her characters. Her characterisation is phenomenal, in my opinion, and this book is an excellent example. The book follows the story of a man named Miles Garth and the many lives he has touched. It is split into four main sections: ‘There’, ‘But’, ‘For’, and ‘The’. Each of these sections is written from a different character’s perspective and each offers a very different and three-dimensional character. Aside from the shortest section (‘But’) you cannot help but fall in love with each of the characters presented.
In my opinion, one of the best aspects of the novel is the cult-like madness that is created around the central, but silent, character Miles. We never actually get much writing from Miles’s point of view which makes his character’s effect on his surroundings so much more exceptional. Miles is seemingly unaware of the effect he has on others and is undeniably kind. Small acts such as the visits to May, the swapping of the wine glasses at the dinner party (religious connotations which I’ll delve into later), the rescue of Anna from social Siberia, mopping the tea with his sock and so on. These small acts of kindness paint the picture of a man who has touched the lives of everyone he interacts with. He has sensationalised an entire army of campers outside the bedroom window. Ali Smith is notably interested in the representations of different communities. This sensationalising of Miles may be a comment on our current climate of celebrity culture (consider Hugo and Gen profiting off Miles with the play/merchandise).
This nature of the cult is also interesting to consider in conjunction with the religious elements within the novel, most notably within the title. There But For The is the beginning of the quote: ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. Smith purposefully leaves the quote unfinished which eludes to one of the main themes within the novel. There is an odd sense of grasping which comes from the segmentation of the novel, the unfinished title, the final reveal about the spare bedroom, the change of Miles’s name to ‘Milo’ and the general question of ‘why?’ The biggest sense of dissatisfaction comes from the eternal question of Miles’s existence in that spare bedroom. His reasons are never properly explained to the reader. But should they have been? Isn’t it infinitely better to question why a seemingly charismatic and kind man would lock himself in a stranger’s spare bedroom? I think Ali Smith denies the reader of this answer and denies Miles a voice in order to force us to focus on the effect he is having on others. This removal of Miles’s personal narrative forces a wider question of human nature and the effect of a mystery.
On a completely separate note, I couldn’t write this post without mentioning Brooke. I absolutely adored her character and related to her pretty heavily. I love the eagerness she had to understand her surroundings and how a lot of the time she was the only character truly seeing every aspect of the story, especially when it came to Miles. She is the one to discover the final secret and to befriend Miles. I think the two characters are kindred spirits despite their age difference and I feel such a fondness for both.
I have way too much to say about this novel, but huge chunks of my rambling isn’t going to appeal to many of you. Instead, below are some themes for you to consider within the novel.
Some main themes to consider:
- religion and the effect of cult followings
- positive and negative effects and representations of community
- friendship and the ethics of friendship
- history (Brooke’s obsession with history and the way most of Miles’s character is presented in past tense, through memory)
- memory (the presentation of Miles’s character, and May’s struggle)
- time – there’s a reason the novel is set in Greenwich
- puns, rhyme and song
- contemporary art (the cover of the novel, the dinner party discussion, Mark’s mother)
I would so highly recommend this book to anyone whose favourite part of a story is always the characters. Ali Smith is a genius, no-one will ever persuade me otherwise. If just one person reads some of her work after seeing this post then I’ll be thrilled.