September 2011

The discreet charm of absurdity

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British author Ali Smith has never been what you’d call a conventional novelist. Whether she is using a hotel as a metaphor for the various stages of life, examining the impact of uninvited guests or re-envisioning a classic Greek myth, Smith has proved she isn’t afraid of taking chances or pushing boundaries.

Smith’s novels tend to begin with a slightly outlandish but irresistibly intriguing premise. Her latest novel, There But For The, is the story of Miles Garth, a man who attends a dinner party only to lock himself in his hosts’ spare bedroom partway through the meal and then refuses to leave. Leave it to Smith to take a seemingly simple and straightforward (and absurd!) idea and transform it into anything but.

A postmodern writer at her very core, Smith uses multiple narrators, ranging from a 10-year-old girl to a woman on her deathbed, to tell the story. Although the title of the novel is itself a frustratingly incomplete fragment, readers will find it fitting: Each of the narrators offers only a snippet of insight into Miles, none of them truly being privy to his entire person. It is only by sifting through and synthesizing these wisps that a larger picture begins to emerge.

This isn’t to say that by the end everything is made clear; this is one novel that will have you puzzling over it well after its final page has been turned. There But For The isn’t the kind of book you read in order to find answers, but rather to ponder questions. This is a novel that is deeply cerebral and is guaranteed to get your synapses firing. For those who relish a bit of an enigma and are looking for something extraordinary when it comes to fiction, There But For The delivers in spades.

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