Publisher: Pantheon Books
Genre: Mainstream Fiction
"If you haven’t read There but for the by Ali Smith, you’re missing out on what Publishers Weekly calls one of the Best Books of 2011." Pantheon Books
Book Review by Danielle T
A dinner party guest locks himself in the spare bedroom and won’t come out.
This book was at the bottom of a big stack of library books that I borrowed over the summer. The day I opened it was the day it was due back to the library, and I nearly decided to return it without reading it. But I’m really happy that I decided to plow on. Thank you, Blacktown Library, for your no-overdue-fines policy.
Genevieve and Eric Lee host an annual “alternative” dinner party, where they invite people who are a bit different from the people they usually see, as well as the set of friends they see all the time. This year Miles is one of the “different” people at the dinner party, a stranger brought along by a friend of a friend. The regulars think that he is pleasant enough. Halfway through the dinner party Miles disappears, makes his way upstairs and locks himself in the guest bedroom. And he doesn’t leave. He survives on the flat packs of turkey and ham that Genevieve Lee slips generously under the door to her (vegetarian) houseguest. Ms Lee cannot bring herself to use brute force and break down her beautiful and authenticated c17th door to remove “Milo”.
The first chapter is written from the perspective of Anna, who is contacted by Genevieve. Genevieve is desperate to find any of Miles’ old acquaintances, anyone who may have the power to persuade him to leave the guest room. Anna is not sure why Miles has her email address- she met him thirty years ago on the grand tour of Europe she won in a high school short story competition, and she has not stayed in touch. And yet...
When this furrowed stranger was a boy in a foreign country, he had gone out of his way for her. He’d reinvented her. He’d moved up and made a space for her on a bus. In her home he’d been kind to her parents.
Thirty years later that last memory revealed itself clean as a new potato in the soil it’s just been unearthed from.
The book shows how even small acts of grace can affect another person deeply, how they can reinvigorate them or help hold some of life’s sadness at bay.
This book is written from the perspectives of people whose lives have been touched, however gently, by Miles. We get to know Miles a little through these different perspectives, but the motivation for his dinner party disappearance remains a mystery. Those readers who would like a detailed and satisfying wrap up of the whys and wherefores of Miles’ disappearance will be disappointed.
In addition to Anna there is Mark, grieving a long-dead mother who whispers wicked rhymes in his ear. Miles is his impromptu companion to the dinner party . There is May Young, old now, and forgetting things. Miles’ small but continuing connection with her over the years turns out to be a life-giving one. Finally there is Brooke, young and coming to grips with being the cleverest in her class (she is no good at drawing hearts and she doesn’t have a Facebook page). Brooke is at the dinner party with her parents, and Miles’ kindness allows her to have a healthy brush with history.
The characters in the book struggle with the many Sad things that can happen over a person’s lifetime. And yet... there is still joy to be found. Joy that is often unexpected, prompted by the little snippets of beauty around us.
On the one hand, nothingness; on the other, birds that sang in their sleep.
Why are we given these moments of joy when there is so much in life that is sad or unfair?
The book is flush with whirly introspections- stay away if this sort of thing annoys you. There are also many puns in this book (the title being one), and sometimes these puns are on the far side of too clever. But I thought this book was amazing- funny and compassionate at the same time.