Friday, 30 December 2011

Book review: There but for the by Ali Smith

There but for the (2011) by Ali Smith

I just... don't know. I don't know about this book. Believe me when I say that I really wanted to love it. I 'saved' it for some time before beginning, and when I didn't feel much into it on the first try, I left it for a while and tried again. Everything (the premise, Smith's reputation, great reviews in the press and here on Goodreads) suggested it would be a wonderful, even revelatory read, and yet... I mean, maybe I've shot myself in the foot by reading so many books this year. Maybe I've got some sort of book fatigue. I always get confused when I see people reading hundreds of books a year and they're almost all the same genre; endless romance, or endless YA paranormal adventure, or endless murder mysteries. I would never judge someone else's reading habits, but I do wonder how it's possible for people to read the same type of book repeatedly - especially if they finish several per week - and not get bored of reading such similar things over and over again.

The problem with this book, then, is that I feel like I've already read it several times this year. Back in the days when I read about 10-20 books a year, there's every possibility I would have been blown away by this, thought it was an absolute masterpiece. But what I've begun to realise recently is that there's a certain type of acclaimed literary novel that can be every bit as predictable as its trashier equivalent. These books are always loosely constructed around some sort of plot idea but aren't really 'about' whatever that is; they always rely heavily on themes of memory, loss, regret, grief and how we relate to others; the narrator/s is/are usually someone old, or older, looking back and reflecting on events from their childhood and younger life; the meaning and significance of language, how we choose to use it, and the formation of stories about our lives/ourselves invariably play a key role. Examples from my reading of this year alone are: Great House, Landfall, The Blue Book, The Sense of an Ending, The Sea, The Gathering, The Finkler Question, to some extent Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and a couple of Paul Auster's books. All of these can, at least loosely, be said to fit into the above description. In particular, The Sense of an Ending and The Blue Book are incredibly similar to There but for the, to the point that they could almost have been written by the same person.

To summarise the story, it's 'about' a man, Miles, who goes upstairs during a dinner party with a group of people he barely knows, locks himself in a spare bedroom, and refuses to come out. This event forms a background for a series of narratives from people loosely connected to Miles. There's Anna, a vague acquaintance from many years ago; Mark, who brought Miles to the party, although the pair had only met briefly before this; May, an elderly woman seemingly facing the end of her life in hospital, whose connections to the dinner-party characters are very slowly revealed; and finally, Brooke, an extremely precocious 10-year-old also present at the party. The narratives are written in the third person, but offer an intimate insight into the characters' thought processes. There are tangents, diversions and recollections galore as the characters explore what their relationships to one another mean, question themselves and dredge up long-lost memories. Brooke's chapter is the best, a lively stream-of-consciousness filled with jokes and puns, witty and clever but, in the end, perhaps a bit pointless.

There is no doubt that Ali Smith is a brilliant writer. Her wordplay and use of language are absolutely wonderful and the characterisation is equally skilful. But I didn't connect with the story, I didn't engage with the narratives, I wasn't desperate to go back to the book whenever I had to put it down; I just didn't like it all that much, to be honest. Sound familiar? It's what I've thought about at least half of the books I listed above. Great writing is great writing, but that alone is not enough to make a great story. Whenever I don't like a literary novel the critics have been raving about, I worry it's because I'm too stupid to truly appreciate it; but I'm really pretty sure that wasn't the case with this. I completely understood everything I was supposed to love about it, it simply failed to elicit any sort of emotional response from me. Sadly, this is another book I very much admired but didn't much enjoy.

Rating: 6/10

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