#392 ~ There but for the

There but for the by Ali Smith

Published by: Knopf Doubleday

Published on: September 13, 2011

Page Count: 256

Genre: Literary Fiction

My Reading Format: Audiobook sent to me via the Solid Gold Reviewer Program organized by Audiobook Jukebox

Audiobook Published by: Highbridge Audio

Narrator: Anne Flosnik

Audiobook Length: 7 hours 44 minutes

Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

My Review

Miles Garth, a man brought to a dinner party by an invited guest, gets up from the dinner table and locks himself in an upstairs guest room. Without explanation, he refuses to leave. His only request, as a vegetarian, is for the appropriate food to be supplied to him. This decision seems to defy logic and the home owners research the man in order to contact those who may know him and may, therefore, assist them in getting their home and piece of mind restored. While no one who knows him very well can be located, we do hear from four unrelated people who know bits and pieces about him. It is through their eyes that we learn of Miles’ encampment, bits and pieces of his past, and about the events that follow.

There but for the is not a standard narrative novel. Certainly there is a basic storyline, but the thin thread that draws out the stories of Anna, Mark May, and Brroke could just as easily be an excuse for highlighting the human condition as evidenced in modern day London. How better to understand ourselves than put us in an unusual situation? Some people rally around things that can’t be explained. Some try to make money off of them. Still others, those not yet world weary, go with their curiosity, attempting to understand.

Each of those who tell their story about themselves and, to a lesser degree, about Miles correspond to a word in the title. Anna’s story uses “there.” Mark’s story uses “but.” May’s story uses “for.” Brooke’s story uses “the.” Writing this out it feels odd to me, but in the midst of the novel, it was brilliant. I didn’t catch the connection until Mark’s story. It was at that point that I connected more deeply with the prose. There are sections of the novel where the dialog follows this pattern:

“[dialog],” Character A says.
“[dialog],” Character B says.
“[dialog],” Character A says.
“[dialog],” Character B says.

I began noticing how the rhythm of those sentences all ending in the word says was. Regardless of what the characters were saying, it was like poetry in that it was pleasing to the ears. To me, this was the brilliance of the novel. While the individual stories were interesting (especially May’s and “The cleverest” Brooke) and I wanted to know what was going on with Miles, the beauty of the prose was all that I needed.

There is often concernt that a complex or experimental novel doesn’t translate well into audio. The belief is that you need to closely study what has been written. I don’t doubt that this is true in some cases, but not here. There but for the made a wonderful audiobook. Anne Flosnik, who is fantastic at interpreting what must have been a daunting novel, provided vocal cues that helped me navigate the landscape. I could sit and listen to her read scenes such as the dialog above ad nauseum. Her narration also had me rapt as May and Brooke were speaking.

The premise of the story was what led me to request this audiobook through the Solid Gold Reviewer program, but it was the performance of Anne Flosnik and the prose of Ali Smith that made this audiobook one to treasure. When I listed this book in my top 10 reads of 2011, I mentioned that I was quite certain that I had no idea what this book was about. Writing this review made me realize that regardless of the author’s intent, I know quite well what it was about for me. I hope this novel gets more exposure because this is a book that will impact and affect each reader differently. I highly recommend There but for the. It is the perfect choice for a read that will challenge and delight you.


  • At 2012.01.27 11:58, Jen - Devourer of Books said:

    Okay, I was iffy about this one, but it sounds really good, I’m going to have to try to get ahold of the audio!

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    • At 2012.01.28 11:46, Literate Housewife said:

      I hope you do, Jen! I would be curious to know what you think. Emma (comment later) had quite the opposite reaction. Just started The Invisible One yesterday. Can’t wait to get into it.

    • At 2012.01.27 14:58, Ti said:

      I won this one! I can’t wait to read it. The premise sounds like my cup of tea.

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    • At 2012.01.27 17:38, bermudaonion (Kathy) said:

      Interesting that you loved it even though you weren’t sure what it was about at first. This sounds like a book I need to look for.

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      • At 2012.01.28 11:47, Literate Housewife said:

        When you are in an experimental state of mind, definitely check this book out. Loved it!

      • At 2012.01.27 20:49, Andi (Estella's Revenge) said:

        I kinda love Ali Smith! Her plots are amazingly original and I like the flow of her writing very much. Hotel World was nearly perfect for me, and I’m looking forward to this one as well.

        • At 2012.01.28 11:48, Literate Housewife said:

          I have The Accidental on order from HighBridge. It’s on sale for $4. How could I pass it up? I’ll look into Hotel World, too. Thanks for the tip.

        • At 2012.01.28 11:37, Emma @ Words And Peace said:

          Once again I’m amazed at how 2 readers can react so differently to the same book. What you enjoyed in the style is precisely what got on my nerves in this one, and I could not stand too much either the voice of the narrator! If you are curious, here is my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/12/14/93-review-there-but-for-the/

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          • At 2012.01.28 11:49, Literate Housewife said:

            I’m sorry we had such different reactions, but that really makes our reading life interesting, doesn’t it?

          • At 2012.01.28 13:51, Lilian Nattel said:

            I read Ali Smith’s most recent collection of short stories and liked it a lot. I haven’t read this–but I’d like to. Her writing is experimental but accessible and thought provoking.

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            • At 2012.01.28 18:20, Marg said:

              I have this book out from the library after hearing several people name it as one of their favourite reads of 2011.

              • At 2012.01.28 22:54, Alyce said:

                It really was artistic and unusual. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but there was so much going on and it was incredibly well written. I still would like to know more about Miles though.

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                • At 2012.01.30 13:55, Kailana said:

                  I have read Ali Smith once before. I really need to read something else by her. This book looks interesting.

                  • […] this year I listened to there but for the by Ali Smith. In that novel, also set in England, a man locks himself in the spare bedroom of […]

                    • At 2012.12.06 04:01, Anne Flosnik ~ Baby, It’s Cold Outside said:

                      […] a warm and wonderful narrator and friend. I first listened to Anne’s work with There But For The, a quirky, thought provoking novel by Ali Smith. I enjoyed her narration and got the opportunity to […]

                      (Required, will not be published)

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