Brooke Bayoude, the nine-year-old central character of Ali Smith’s quirky new novel, There but for the, is precocious, a social butterfly according to her teachers and her peers, and obsessed with history and the possibility of eventual death. She’s also loveable—in fact, adorable—and a joy to observe as she tries to discover answers to life’s mostly unanswerable questions. To say that she is grown up by the end of the story, when she is ten, is probably inaccurate, but Brooke by then has certainly demonstrated a mature ability to understand the confused people around her. She is one of the few true adults in the story. Because of the novel’s inventive structure, it takes a fair amount of time before Brooke assumes center stage.
The opening of There but for the (grace of God, go I/you) is something else completely. Giles Garth, an unexpected guest at a dinner party in London, abruptly leaves the dinner table and goes upstairs, presumably in search of a bathroom. Giles has tagged along with one of the host’s invited guests, but even that guest confesses that he has only recently met Giles and knows little about him. For a while, no one pays much attention to Giles’ absence from the table, but after a lengthy period of time the hosts and the other guests (including Brooke and her parents) begin to be worried. Is the man possibly sick? Does he need help?
When attempts are made to discover what has happened, the story becomes a little bizarre. Giles Garth (the unexpected guest) has locked himself in one of the upstairs bedrooms and won’t come out. As the host explains ten days later in a message to one of Giles’ friends from years ago, “Mr. Garth has locked himself in our spare bedroom. I am only relieved the bedroom is ensuite. He will not leave the room. He is not just refusing to unlock the door and go to his own home, wherever that might be. He is refusing to speak to a single soul. It has now been ten days, and our unwanted tenant has only communicated by 1 piece of paper slipped under the bottom of the door. We are slipping flat packs of wafer-paper-thin turkey and ham to him under the said door but are unable to provide him with anything more dimensional because of the size of the space between the said door and the floor.”
What to do? Well, in their desperation, the Lees (the hosts) discover an address book in Giles’ sport coat that was left at the dinner table, and in that book the name of Anna, who it turns out knew Giles thirty years ago. But ask yourself what you would respond if someone contacted you about someone you haven’t seen in thirty years. What could you say? Then there’s Mark, who brought Giles to the dinner party, but he knows little about the acquaintance he met days earlier. So although Anna and Mark become the focus of two of the major sections of the novel, what they reveal about Giles Garth hardly matters, nor does Ali Smith mean them to. Rather, all of her main characters are variations on loneliness, insecurity, and death.
Still, Gen Lee (the hostess, who is not given a major section of the novel), may have the best insights about the strange man who came to dinner and then stayed: “Did he want to know what it felt like to not be in the world? Had he closed the door on himself so he would know what it feels like, to be a prisoner? Was it some wanky kind of middle-class game about how we’re all prisoners even though we believe we’re free as a bird, free to cross any shopping mall or airport concourse or fashionably stripped back wooden floor of the upstairs room of a house? Did he inhabit his cell for the good of the others, like a bee or a monk?”
Whatever, it doesn’t take long before the man upstairs becomes a cause celebre, with the media surrounding the Lee’s flat, with cameramen positioned at the back in case the mysterious man makes himself visible at a window. Worse, the profiteers of greed, including Mrs. Lee, are soon there attempting to make a quick killing out of the man’s absurd antics. And, finally, there’s Brooke Bayoude the only intelligent observer in the group. But that quality of the young girl you will need to discover for yourself, along with the juicy surprises of the other narrators and their own remarkable observations on life’s strange happenings. Taken all together, Ali Smith’s There but for the is as intriguing—and clever—as its title.
There but for the
By Ali Smith
Pantheon, 236 pp., $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.