There but for the by Ali Smith

This is the first Ali Smith book I’ve read, and it’s definitely not my last.  This is not a typical novel for me:  four stories by four people who know Miles Garth, a man who excuses himself from a dinner party table and locks himself into a spare room for months.  The first chapter is the story of Anna Hardie, who became friends with Miles during a high school tour of Europe.  The second chapter is the story of Mark Palmer, the man who brings Miles to the dinner party. It contains a set piece of the odd dinner party conversation immediately preceding Miles’s departure.  The third chapter is the story of May Young, an elderly woman in the beginnings of dementia, remembering her life.  At the end of her chapter we find out her connection to Miles.  Finally, the last chapter is told by the word-obsessed ten-year-old Brooke Bayoude.  She met Miles at the infamous dinner party, and she tries to write the history of Miles and his time in the room  .One word of warning:  Brooke’s chapter is a bit difficult to read because there aren’t many paragraph breaks.
This is not a novel about plot; in fact, at the end of the novel I don’t know, with certainty, why Miles locked himself into th eroom.  All of the narrators know him superficially or for a brief time, but they don’t know him well enough to knowwhy he locked himself in a room for months. While we don’t get to know Miles, we do get to know each of the four narrators, and I actually cared for them. Honestly, this book reminded me of the experimental fiction I read in both English and Spanish in undergrad, but this felt so much more humane than the experimental fiction I’ve read before. It’s a book that’s ripe for writing about, structurally or thematically, but, somehow, with interesting, involving characters.
There but for the by Ali Smith
Pantheon Books
Publication date: September 13, 2011
Source: public library

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