Book review: There but for the by Ali Smith

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There but for the By Ali Smith Hamish Hamilton, 384pp, £16.99

Nineteen-eighty-four was a good year for my special subject, teaching at Aberdeen University. The subject in question was Modern Scottish fiction, and a particularly interested, hungry and committed group crammed into my room to read and discuss it. Some of them have gone on to write themselves, and one of them has twice been nominated for the Booker Prize. When she came to Aberdeen, her name was Alison Smith.

She graduated top of her year. At the meeting which carefully discriminated the classes of degrees, the chief external examiner came to her case and said, "Let's not deliberate on this one: let's just clap and cheer!" We did. A gap year beckoned before her Cambridge scholarship, and we fitted in an MLitt thesis on modern Scottish fiction with me either supervising or, often, trying to keep up. It was a helter skelter, excited, exhilarated thesis.

Years pass, and the tutor-pupil relationship becomes a close friendship of book lovers. Ali becomes celebrated as a short story writer, and as a novelist. I included a long interview with her in 2002, in Scottish Writers Talking 3. It is much less respectful of the author than any of my other interviews - robust, argumentative, sparring with each other, searching together for insights. We discuss her shaping of short stories into integrated volumes, looking at the novels for structures, shapes, dominant themes, mischief.

In 2011 she publishes her fifth novel, There But For The, and I am invited to review it. It seems unnatural not to be discussing it, asking questions, making jokes with Ali, but here goes. I have been impressed and amazed with her developing work, and find the new book another Great Leap Forward. It has the magic freshness of all her writing, the deft dialogue that instantly creates character, the pinpointing of social difference and exploding of pretension. It has new angles on the way people accidentally coincide, affect each others' lives.

You give a dinner party, and a friend of a friend brings a stranger to your house, who gets up in mid-meal, locks himself in an upstairs bedroom, and will neither speak nor come out. Where does a story go from there?

There But For The goes on a dazzling journey, filling out the detail, past and present, in totally unexpected ways. The novel does not have a conventional narrator. It inhabits in turn the thoughts and reactions of four different people who are drawn into the enigma of Miles Garth, and what he is doing in the ever-so-chi-chi house of Genevieve and Eric Lee.Gen Lee first calls on the help of Anna Hardie. She is at a loose end, having given up her job in Senior Liaison at what she and her colleagues only half laughingly called the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, Permanent Temporariness).

She has succeeded most satisfactorily at the job, listening to people's stories of suffering, torture or atrocity, and rendering them down to two-thirds of a sheet of A4, for someone else to judge them true, credible or redundant. Others have similarly grandiose-sounding job descriptions. At the dinner party we learn that Miles is an ethical consultant. He explains that he helps firms to look as if they are greener or more morally defensible than they are: the child Brooke, a joy who pops up frequently throughout, says Miles is an ethic cleanser. Thinking, feeling people like Anna and Miles are uncomfortable in a world we rather recognise. Like some earlier Smith characters, Anna is being poisoned by her job. She left in time, and is at rather a loss when Gen Lee emails her. Her e-mail says "my husband and I are at the end of my tether" - a whole relationship implied there.

Although she scarcely remembers it, Anna did meet Miles 30 years earlier, when both were 18-year-old prizewinning essayists on a trip to Europe, and gradually she remembers his wit and openness. So she goes along in case she can help. Anna and Mark are both lonely people in a tainted society.

On every page that she is allowed to prattle on, Gen Lee mentions of Mark that he is gay. He guides us through the next part of the novel, but rarely mentions it himself. He is haunted by bad poetry from his long-dead mother. We learn how he met Miles at a performance of The Winter's Tale and almost idly asked for his company as a support at the Lees'. The famous dinner party that Miles deserts is superbly done - somewhere between Muriel Spark's Symposium and the Fortune/Bird dinner parties on the Rory Bremner Show. Mark is lonely too. We learn his mother was a talented painter - and a Jew. The Lees make sure you know these things. We learn that not only was he a Jew, but he was bullied at school because his mother committed suicide when he was 13. Mark thinks of his dead lover too, and ponders the unreality of Google - "a kind of deception about a whole new way of feeling lonely … a great sea of hidden shallows".

But it is truly ridiculous that my attempts to describe this charmingly and deliberately digressive book keep trying to come back to a character-plus-plot summary. It would even be more interesting and central to try to answer questions such as "Discuss the variety of wordplay and inventiveness in", or "Discuss the novel as satiric commentary on the city today", or "In what ways does the Greenwich setting or Conrad's The Secret Agent affect the novel", or whatever.Not that these questions scintillate in themselves, but any of them might allow the candidate to concentrate on a single, large aspect of the book.

So now I'll just luxuriate in the ten-year-old girl, Brooke, through whose eyes and whose "preternaturally articulate" mouth the last part of the novel registers. Anna, Mark and Miles are all colour-blind, so a hasty reader may have missed the first thing Gen Lee sees about her - Brooke is black. That is why Anna notices Gen Lee's colour: she turns from Brooke when the door opens, "But it was a white woman", who packs the child off and says to Anna, "Obviously not ours." Brooke can say or think just anything, and frequently does: '"Have you not met any or very many black people before or are you just living in a different universe?" Silence thuds down round the table.'

Brooke is extremely well read for her age, and exceptionally curious. She is fascinated by history, and is trying to write the full story of Miles's stay in the bedroom, and the public furore that ensues. She has a great sense of humour and verbal dexterity, and Anna encourages her in puns and wordplay. Her jokes reflect her age: "What do you give an elephant who's cracking up? Trunkquillizers." Occasionally she gets her history deliciously wrong: "Archbishop of Canterbury (like the author Samuel Beckett who was stabbed to death on the altar." Or "Nelson said Kiss Me Hardy to Thomas Hardy the famous author."

When Miles becomes an international story on TV, renamed Milo, surrounded by eager crowds looking for guidance, or carrying banners saying "Not in Milo's Name", and another party guest, Hugo, makes a name for himself by writing and performing a monologue-play about Milo, Brooke finds it "an Alps of boredom". She goes to sleep halfway through, as she did at the party. Gen Lee thinks it is "virtuoso", Brooke that it is "virtuso-so".

But some of her effervescence and dedication to fact is an attempt to divert herself. She does a lot of truanting, and evades parental attempts to discover her problems. She is trying to forget school, in particular Mr Warburton, her teacher for the last two years, who shouted at her and abused her with rage, and encouraged the rest of the class to dislike her.

There but for accidental conjunctions with Anna and Mark as well as her parents, would go a damaged child. Here, but for the wish to read it again very soon, goes a very happy reader.