There but for the, Ali Smith

“Think how quiet a book is on a shelf, he said, just sitting there, unopened. Then think what happens when you open it.”

Rating: ★★★★

Primarily due to feeling quite awful about rating Girl Meets Boy so terribly, I thought I would review another of Smith’s books to show her writing in a different light because she is my favourite author and perhaps this time I will do her justice.

What I love so much about Smith’s writing is her blurring between boundaries. With the lack of speech marks, there’s often confusion between what is said and what is thought, and who is saying what. This sounds really confusing but its actually extremely clever in that it makes you think more in depth about the text. The title. There but for the what? There but for the grace of God go I? – A saying that essentially means you avoid the mistakes that others have made, yet understand them. Smith also wants us to view these four words as separate sections. There. But. For. The. Four different chapters of the novel.

Opening with a dinner party, Miles Garth takes himself upstairs and locks himself in one of the rooms, and doesn’t come out for months. The consequences of his actions are catalytic for the prose, and we see how he affects those around him. A character who is at first quite opaque, Miles Garth is shown to us through other characters, particularly Anna K. The novel is not entirely present, and we go back 20 years or so ago. It’s about communication, relationships. How you can lose contact so quickly with someone who meant so much to you before. There isn’t much plot. We are missing the last word of this sentence; for the what? More importantly – WHY? Why did Miles Garth lock himself in the guest room during this dinner party? Why does he eventually leave the room? The novel poses a lot of questions that are left unanswered, this lack of core in this story is what the prose evolves around. Miles is merely the connection between the four parts of the story. He has a relationship with all four of these people, and thus he is more of a pivotal point within the novel rather than the protagonist.

I find it incredibly difficult to know what to write or what to think about Ali Smith’s work. All I know, is that I loved this novel. It is hard to review because I’ve nothing to compare it to, and not a real plot to consider it a real story but rather a mixture of narratives and timelines, that have, at one point in time, crossed over. Her prose, as always, is lyrical and beautifully put. Such indulgent language is intellectual and filled with wordplay. It is a rewarding read and although at times confusing, I highly recommend.

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Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith

Rating: ★★

“Like that poem I knew, about how you sit and read your way through a book then close the book and put it on the shelf, and maybe, life being so short, you’ll die before you ever open that book again and its pages, the single pages, shut in the book on the shelf, will maybe never see light again…”

Sadly I was disappointed with this book. As you can see from the image, I have quite an affection for the writings of Ali Smith, and my blog title is inspired by Artful. Girl Meets Boy, however, didn’t seem to meet the standards of those I had read previously and somewhat lacked in the enticement that first drew me to Ali Smith, with my first novel being How to Be Both. I finished it after a couple of hours throughout the day; it’s a short novel with large print.

The novel take its foundation from the myth of Iphis in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and is essentially a postmodern retelling. The main themes are around gender and sexuality; taking an old story and placing it in the modern age. With a political and feminist agenda, this sometimes feels as though it gets in the way of the narrative. Full of interesting characters and what seems like could-be plots, the book feels as though it has been cut short, and perhaps should have been more extended.

The prose, as usual, was lyrical. Smith’s lack of speech marks gives her writing a stream-of-consciousness feel, and makes the reader pay more attention. Maybe because I was so hyped about Smith’s previous novels was the reason I didn’t feel so strongly about this one. The lack of plot made the book seem more like political agenda, which could have been more at home in an essay rather than a narrative.

Girl Meets Boy was whimsical, short, and sweet, and there’s not much else to say. While it didn’t make my top 5 Ali Smith books, it still managed to hold my attention, so I suppose that says something.