The story revolves around the quiet and imaginative Miles Garth who attends one of the most horrific dinner parties ever depicted (the hostess aims it at ‘generics’) as the guest of a man he met at the theatre the week before. The conversation reaches a point* where he is saturated with horrors and withdraws upstairs to lock himself in the spare bedroom before refusing to leave. He unwittingly becomes a minor celebrity with crowds gathering outside to try and catch a glimpse of him. The first book summoned to my mind by scanning the blurb was Sue Townsend’s The Woman who Went to Bed for a Year, however this is a different kind of humorous fight. As in The Accidental, the traffic of the stranger through the hearth and home creates points of intersection (conjunctions feature heavily) and the process of these altering her characters leads to comfort zones, and complacency, being disrupted.
Of the novel’s four sections, There features Anna Hardie, who knew Miles briefly when they were teenagers, travelling together on a coach tour of Europe as winners in a short-story competition. Her sympathy gives her enormous appeal. Having just left her job at the Centre for Temporary Permanence out of a gentle form of disgust, Anna lives modestly as a result to the extent that when she is summoned to extract Miles, she mentions if she leaves for home any later she would have to catch a more expensive train. This does not matter to the bourgeois nightmare Gen Lee who firmly shuts her eighteenth-century door (she wastes no time informing Anna that “the house itself dates from the 1820’s”) in Anna’s face – unreasonable train fares are not within her realm of concerns. Come back later. It is not clear whether Gen is capable of listening at all.
But portrays an extremely receptive listener: Mark, who invited Miles to the party. He mourns an old lover and hears his dead mother speaking to him in rhymes, and cannot help but respond out loud, startling the surrounding Londoners.
For is May Young, an elderly lady in a care home suffering from dementia, has annual contact with Miles, the boyfriend of her daughter, who died very young.
the belongs to Brooke – the precocious daughter of two of the guests of the party, utterly charming academics called Terence and Bernice Bayoude – and the only person to have contact with Miles since his self-inflicted imprisonment. She is able to be spontaneous and flexible (one of her many notes to self: “The fact is: imagine”); her mind elastic like the best kind of reader, as she chirps ‘Words words words’ and puns wonderfully with Anna as they wander around Greenwich.
Thoughtful and playful are hard words to avoid here. In the process of not-showing-off, Smith covers matters of class, race, the political agenda on immigration and religion, science versus art, death and dementia and celebrity culture (the author aptly described this as a “huge cavernous racketing edifice” in an interview). Surely no one could comprehensively trawl through them all in 357 pages, but she touches on each without needing to fill in the blanks for you, her title is one such example. You get it, and are uplifted by her characters. Nicholas Lezard put it exactly right: “Of course, Ali Smith is Scottish, and when it comes to stylistic daring or formal complexity in fiction, the Scots, or some of them at least – James Kelman, Candia McWilliam, AL Kennedy and Alasdair Gray are names that come immediately to mind – are about 60 years ahead of most English writers.”
* (One highlight: “We don’t need real tigers any more. We’ve finally tamed the wild.”
“That’s what they want you to think, my darling moron”, Hugo says.
“Don’t call me a moron, darling”, Caroline says.
Hannah asks the Bayoudes if they’ve ever seen a real tiger at home. Not in Yorkshire, they say. She asks where they’re from originally. They tell her Harrogate)
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