In true, and glorious, Ali Smith style, There but for the is a novel narrated from multiple perspectives, seamlessly weaving various timeframes, memories and characters together as their stories pivot around a central linked point. The pivotal point here is a dinner party gone dreadfully wrong. One of the guests, an almost stranger named Miles, excuses himself from the dinner table. He proceeds to lock himself in the spare bedroom and refuses to come out. Various characters are introduced into the story, helping to flesh out the life which has led Miles to this point.
The point of the novel, as is often the case with Smith, is not stringing the reader along until they arrive at the big reveal moment when the whole locked room mystery will be revealed. Ali Smith is a much better writer than this. The point is that in getting to the point, or perhaps not even getting there, the reader relishes the journey and the opportunity to try on each character’s unique perspective and walk a chapter in their shoes. Thus, the plot device, though clever, always feels a little subsidiary to the incredibly well-crafted characters and the subtleties Smith weaves into each of their voices. This is a book about living and being and the way people’s lives crash into each other and how these crazy encounters are meant to be enjoyed not analysed.
Around half-way into the narrative Smith introduces the reader to May Young, an older lady living with Dementia in a nursing home. May’s chapter is narrated in a close, and very intimate third, with much of the observation coming from what May calls, “the confines of her head.” It’s a very well-written exploration of how it must feel for someone living with Dementia during that strangely liminal period, when May is still aware enough to know something’s gone wrong with her mind, yet is already losing elements of her own autonomy.
There’s a tremendous amount of physicality to Smith’s depiction of May. May is constantly narrating the movements and presence of her own body as if observing it at some distance. She is clearly struggling to situate her sense of self as attached to her own body when she thinks about the hospital band, digging into her wrist.
“Well, but it was sore enough, that wrist on the bed, to be her own wrist, no stranger’s wrist after all, there where the plastic bit into it.”
Smith also explores the blurring of time within May’s head as she confuses a young visitor with one of her own children and talks about being overwhelmed by the memory of the three of them, frozen at particular points in their development.
“All three of her children ran about in May’s head in colour turned up too-high, on a throbbing green lawn bordered with throbbing yellow roses.”
May’s confusion extends to her own story. She’s trying to get the order of it straight in her head; to understand the implications and consequences of everything which has happened in her life. It isn’t easy. Dates slip and facts rearrange themselves. The story comes out back to front and in the wrong order. It’s a very believable account of Dementia. Ali Smith’s style of writing sits well with the fractured linguistic tics, the repetitions, questions and word associations which might be seen as typical of a person exhibiting the early stages of Dementia. May’s chapter exists as a microcosm of the themes running through There but for the. Yes, the reader wants to understand the story she’s telling. There’s a desire to pin down the narrative. But the true joy of May’s story is in the telling; in the getting to the point. Fractured, fumbled, shot through with humour and strange digressions, her elliptical narration gives the reader a wonderful insight into the workings of her brain and the sort of complex and wonderful person May Young is.
There but for the was published by Penguin Books in 2012