Not playing it safe; tumbles to be expected when such a high wire act is happening
Ali Smith’s The Accidental is bold, playful, exuberant, and with its opening chapter about the very accident of conception itself – one egg, the possibility offered by a myriad spermatozoa, bursting vibrantly and provocatively into introducing the protagonist from – where, heaven?, hell? the here and now? – it reminded me not a little of Kate Atkinson’s first novel, Behind The Scenes At The Museum.
The title of Smith’s book is of course mocking and, `Yeah, Right!’ because the whole tenor of the book decries `the accident’. The mysterious agent-provocateur, Amber/Alhambra, whose conception, in the café of an Alhambra cinema is detailed at the start, will enter the lives of a fairly ordinary family, in the guise of a saviour to some, and as some kind of devastating Kali figure to others, whose trail of destruction forces changes and awakening on them. Everything they are, everything that happens, came from their natures and their choices, not from `accident’
But enough of this elusive waffle, what is the outline of this book
A family of 4, Michael, University lecturer in the English Department, serial philanderer. His wife, Eve, a successful genre writer in a kind of `invented biography’ field, taking the lives of real people who died early and inventing longer lives for them. Eve’s children: Magnus, 17, highly intelligent, falling dangerously apart, after his unwitting but still culpable involvement in a piece of Facebook flamery causes a classmate to kill herself. And finally, lastly, but absolutely not leastly,12 year old Astrid. The 4 – the Smart family (here, as so often Smith is making all sorts of pointed comments, as the family, and certainly the adults, are anything but) are on a summer vac holiday in Norfolk, and pretty disastrous it is turning out to be.
Smith writes events from the point of view of each family member – not as first person narration but as seen from the point of view of the omniscient narrator – it is only Amber, the instigator of changes, who gets first person narration.
Amber appears unexpectedly at the holiday cottage, and both Eve and Michael are convinced she has been invited by the other (their marriage is not altogether going swimmingly as shown by the fact that Eve thinks Amber must be one of Michael’s current student seductions, and Michael that she is some kind of `eighties feministy still-political women’ for whom Eve is some kind of icon.
On her first night with the family she rescues Magnus from a suicide attempt, blazes Astrid out of the sulking disaffected `whatever’ she is heading towards, is violently fallen in love with by Michael, and becomes some kind of confessional for Eve. Her role, for each of the four, is ultimately healing, though for the adults, her healing involves a ruthless stripping away of their masks, and is both immediately, and ultimately painful.
But what makes Smith’s book challenging, entrancing, and, also it must be said, at times extremely irritating, are the games she plays, with form, structure, style, reference. For example, one of the Michael sections consists of a series of sonnets as Amber releases the writer from the cynical and rather tired analyser of literature. Amber’s own sections, true to her movie inspired conception, runs through a dizzying movie iconic moments, cliché moments from movies, explanation of our times.
The Smart family’s individual voices are not drawn equally successfully. Eve, for me, is the character who engages the least, and young Astrid is the absolute stand-out,
Astrid is taping dawns. There is nothing else to do here. The village is a dump. Post Office, vandalised Indian restaurant, chip shop little shop place that’s never open, place for ducks to cross the road. Ducks actually have their own roadsign! There is a sofa warehouse called Sofa So Good. It is dismal. There is a church. The church has its own roadsign too. Nothing happens here except a church and some ducks, and this house is an ultimate dump. It is substandard. Nothing is going to happen here all substandard summer.
I have some reservations about the book once the summer was over, and the unravelling, the remaking, the inventiveness moved beyond the family’s return to London and beyond, possibly because the final character journey which Smith explores, is that of Eve, who, for me, was the character who had worked less well, and who I found the least credible.
But I am certainly minded to explore more of Smith’s writing. She is an unusual voice, one with energy, verve, and fierce intelligence. Her crackling intellect and her ability to connect together all sorts of disparate threads, to explore the form of the novel, but not in a dry and dusty manner, reminds me not a little of Scarlett Thomas.
This book won the 2005 Whitbread Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker in that year, and for the Orange Prize for Fiction in the following year. It’s fair to say that readers, unlike awarders, found the book a Marmite one