The Absolute End

Theo Tait

  • There but for the by Ali Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 356 pp, £16.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 241 14340 7

Last year’s Man Booker judges took a largely deserved kicking when they said they were looking for ‘readable’, ‘enjoyable’ books that ‘zip along’. But I felt some sympathy for Chris Mullin when he complained that the London literary world – ‘those who know best’ – had told him and his fellow panellists, from the outset, which books they ‘must’ include on the shortlist, and had reacted with fury when they were ignored. I felt especially sympathetic because one of the books whose absence was most complained of was Ali Smith’s There but for the. Jeanette Winterson said that Smith’s novel, about a dinner-party guest who hides in his hosts’ spare bedroom and refuses to come out, was a ‘wonderful, word-playful’ book left out because it didn’t fit the judges’ philistine criteria. There but for the later emerged as one of the most named novels in that orgy of groupthink and logrolling, the Christmas books of the year selections. Apparently it’s ‘a soaring, swooping novel of belonging, community and alienation’; it seethes ‘with inventiveness, humanity, wit and language fit for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, indomitable and adroit, full of angelic swagger and pretend pratfalls’.

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