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The Accidental by Ali Smith

Twelve-year-old Astrid Smart’s summer holiday in a ‘quintessential’ Norfolk village is so boring that she spends the early hours of each morning taping the dawn with her new video camera—boring, that is, until the mysterious arrival of barefoot, thirty-something Amber, the unconventional and, at times, obnoxious, visitor whose battered old car breaks down near their rented cottage. Amber, who comes to represent something different for each member of the Smart family, irrevocably alters the way Eve, her husband Michael, and Eve’s children, Magnus and Astrid, see themselves and each other, making that summer a life-changing one for all of them.

The Accidental by Ali Smith
The Accidental, Ali Smith (Penguin Books Ltd, April 2006; Anchor Books, April 2007)

Ali Smith’s latest novel, The Accidental, nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award, follows upon a series of successful books, including The Whole Story and Other Stories and Hotel World. The Accidental, based loosely on a 1968 film (Pasolini’s Theorum), re-works an age-old tale: a typical middle class family is forced to re-examine itself after the sudden arrival of a stranger whose perspective turns its relatively ordered world upside down.

Although the plot may be familiar, it is different in the telling. For one thing, this middle class family is ‘typical’ only by modern standards: like the broken pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the Smarts are a dysfunctional family. Eve, who is the writer of a series of best-selling historical reconstructions, is married to Michael, a philandering English professor with a taste for the young and nubile. Magnus and Astrid, Eve’s children by an earlier marriage, have their own set of problems. Seventeen-year-old Magnus spends his summer holidays locked up in his room, tormented by a shocking incident in school that he feels partly responsible for. And, as for Astrid, rather than enjoy the world like an average twelve-year-old, she negotiates it at a distance, through the lens of her video camera.

The stage is set for self-discoveries, and the catalyst is the unconventional Amber. Through a series of misunderstandings (Eve thinks she is one of Michael’s student-lovers, Michael thinks she is here to interview Eve), Amber ends up staying with the Smarts although no one really knows who she is or where she came from. By the end of the novel, we are no closer to figuring that out: as Michael ironically reflects, ‘She went round the country in that old white car like the perverse opposite of a post-war government-employed district nurse, knocking on the doors of complete strangers in the middle of nowhere to health-test the cores of their bodies’. While Eve is cautious around Amber, Michael falls head-over-heels for her, Astrid adores her, and Magnus, in a series of rather explicit scenes, finds in her an ‘angel’ well-practised in the sexual arts.

In passages devoted to Amber interspersed throughout the book, we learn that she is actually ‘Alhambra’, named after the movie theatre in which she was conceived. These passages, which have a lyrical quality to them, suggest that Amber is not a person at all but a powerful illusion, the kind normally associated with film. Images and the nature of art and reality are frequently explored in The Accidental. Astrid, the budding filmmaker, reflects, ‘Magnus told her that idea about how something on a film is different from something in real life. In a film there is always a reason. If there is an empty room in a film it would be for a reason they were showing you the empty room.’ Later, Eve, looking at photographs of American soldiers and Iraqi prisoners-of-war, realizes that ‘something quite mysterious happened the more she looked at the pictures. She knew it was supposed to happen like that, that although these photographs were a signal to the eyes about something really happening, the more she looked at them the less she felt or thought.’

Smith explores the inner life of members of a fractured family by entering their consciousness: the story unfolds through each of their perspectives in a style that most closely resembles stream-of-consciousness. This allows her to present a number of different voices in the same novel, ranging from the whimsical (Astrid) to the brooding and mathematical (Magnus) or the pompously academic (Michael). Overall, the novel is irresistible precisely because of the way it is written—at once playful or menacing, comic or heart-wrenching and, at times, all of these things rolled into one.

Though ‘literary’ enough to make Virginia Woolf proud, The Accidental is extremely readable, its story riveting because of its highly individual, highly unpredictable, cast of characters. Peppered with references to pop culture, film and the Internet, as well as to more ‘highbrow’ subjects like Shakespeare’s plays, mathematical theorists, and contemporary politics (the Iraq war is a point of reference throughout), The Accidental is the seasoned product of a brilliant imagination.

Shahbano Bilgrami's first novel, 'Without Dreams', was published in November 2007 and was longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.