Reviewed by Ellyn Cook
Genevieve Lee holds an unconventional dinner party each year in her stylish Greenwich home, to which she invites friends and a couple of people with whom she wouldn’t otherwise mix. Summer 2009 and the special guests include a black couple recently relocated – though from Harrogate, not Africa – and Mark, a gay picture editor haunted by memories of his late mother, who killed herself when he was a child. Mark brings along Miles Garth, a stranger he once sat next to at the theatre and whom he barely knows. To everyone’s surprise, Miles disappears upstairs halfway through the meal, locks himself in the spare bedroom and refuses to come out. His one communication conveys he has water from the en-suite bath so only requires food. Days stretch into weeks and months and Miles become a semi-celebrity after an article in a national newspaper brings crowds flocking to the house and hostess Gen begins selling ‘Milo Merchandise’. Each chapter presents the perspective of a different acquaintance of Miles until – eventually – precocious and very verbal nine year-old neighbour Brooke provides him with grounds for re-entering the world. At the novel’s centre, the dinner party is played out in full.
Given that the idea of ‘the house guest who overstays their welcome’ is well established (e.g. The Man Who Came to Dinner, first launched on Broadway in 1939), it was logical to expect that new engagement with this theme would sharpen the subject in innovative ways. Yet, the central character Miles frustratingly remains an enigma to his fellow characters and the reader alike. Likewise, peripheral character May – in her eighties, suffering from dementia and whose connection to Miles is unclear – is further departure from the story as it could be. In addition, the anarchic aim of unsettling middle-class sensibility, represented by the ingrained prejudices and superciliousness of the guests at the party, although not lost, might well have been more up-to-date. The black couple is asked if they ‘have ever seen a real tiger back home’ – plausible at a dinner set a century ago, but for 2009, it’s weary.
The prose in the There But For The by Ali Smith is from the modern vernacular; contemporary expressions and popular culture drawn in through reference to songs, television and internet phenomena. The style is light, conversational, and with something of a linguistic tomfoolery with puns (Gen’s husband is called Eric; thus Gen and Eric). Some of the more extreme modern elements were irksome, such as the dialogue presented without quotation marks. Most maddening, however, was the lack of a strong ending.
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