A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Smart family’s lacklustre holiday in Norwich is turned upside down when a beguiling stranger called Amber appears, bringing with her love, joy, pain and upheaval. The Smarts try to make sense of their bewildering emotions as Amber tramples over family boundaries and forces them to think about their world and themselves in an entirely new way. The Accidental is at once a mysterious web of secret identities and a ruthlessly honest look at the silent cracks that can develop unnoticed in relationships over time.
This is a magical and highly surreal book and very different from any other novel I’ve ever read. I felt very much as if I were being taken on a journey through unfamiliar but fascinating territory by someone who knew exactly what they were doing and whom I was more than happy to trust. That said, it was interesting that, because of the unusual structure of the novel, I found this review one of the hardest to write. By attempting to create a review in a measured way, I felt as if I was in effect taking away much of the magic of this book – like putting a butterfly into a box, if you like. Still, I will do my best.
The mysterious Amber is the key figure that both binds the story into cohesion and keeps the family apart. We never find out much about her at all, but that’s entirely suited to the tale. There are a couple of wonderful sections in the text where we hear her voice directly, but the information contained in them is a gripping fusion of myth, contemporary reference and inspired lunacy that becomes a prose poem in itself. She’s also marvellous in saying utterly honest things to the family that they don’t believe simply because they’re too shocking. Even though they’re true. I loved that. She appears at the beginning and disappears, just as strangely, at the end. Indeed the key elements of her character are succinctly explained in a brief glance at lineage at the start:
From my mother: grace under pressure; the uses of mystery; how to get what I want. From my father: how to disappear, how to not exist.
I also enjoyed the way that we have three main sections called, sensibly enough, the beginning, the middle and the end. Within each section, we focus on the four family members and their developing and very different relationships with Amber. This is indeed a strongly character-focused tale.
Astrid, the daughter, is spiky and carries her own strangeness in the way that some young girls do. She also has a rather quirky way of exploring the meaning of things, which results in a few wonderful moments of humour:
She looks at the way the sun comes through the leaves above her head i.e. the story of Icarus who had the wings his father made which the sun melted when he flew too close. She wonders what the difference would have been if the father had made the wings for a girl instead, who maybe would have known how to use them properly.
I loved the fact that she both records life and keeps it at bay through her beloved video camera. That rings true, though some of us use words for that, rather than pictures. So it’s shocking when Amber destroys the camera, and Astrid has to learn to see directly for herself. In some ways, however, Astrid fades away from the book at that point and I rather missed the demands of her voice. But this is a novel that rolls through a variety of paths like the sea and you are borne along by the current into the lives of other, equally important characters.
Astrid’s brother, Magnus, is the most poignant of the group. We first see him suffering from terrible guilt at the death of a fellow-pupil at school. It’s one of those instances, that I’m convinced we must all be aware of, where one foolish decision leads to a tragic result. It’s made worse as during most of the book, Magnus bears his pain alone, as he’s unable to confess what’s happened to any of his family:
There’s his mother. She doesn’t know anything. She is saying something. Magnus nods. He picks up his plate from a place at the table with no one sitting at it. His sister takes the plate from him. She doesn’t know either. She is putting something on the plate out of a dish on the table. It smells of fish in the room. Michael is saying something. He doesn’t know anything. He is pointing at something. Magnus nods. He hopes that this nodding is what they need.
This sparse and simple prose highlights Magnus’ terrible sense of being alone very effectively. So it’s fascinating that we also see him through the eyes of Astrid and, to some extent, their mother Eve, and his actions seem largely like an average teenage boy. It’s only when we see his viewpoint directly that we understand the perfectly valid reasons for the sulkiness, anti-social attitude and lack of cleanliness. As a reader, I really appreciated the way my expectations were built up and then gloriously undercut by the truth as Magnus sees it. Wonderful. His development throughout the book, and how the presence of Amber changes him, is very well portrayed.
So far so good with the children. The adults are an entirely different matter and equally fascinating. Stepfather Michael (and yes, it is tricky that two sets of characters have similar names – you have to keep alert here …) is the bad boy of the family, with his affairs with his students, but is both amusing and direct about it to himself, particularly in terms of the ageing process. I couldn’t help but warm to him. Here he is with one of his students:
Philippa on the other hand had, as soon as she was kissed, put her hand inside his trousers and cupped his balls. She was an ambitious girl.
Actually of all the characters here, Michael is the most normal one and in many ways acts as a grounding force for the eccentricities of those around him. That said, the moment the mysterious Amber arrives he falls hopelessly in love with her – an emotion that is entirely unrequited – but his observance of this remains vibrant and honest:
Life never stopped being glorious, a glorious surprise, a glorious renewal all over again. Like new. No, not just like new, but really new, actually new. Metaphor not simile. No like between him and the word new. Who’d have believed it? That woman, Amber, had just pushed her plate away, pushed her chair back, long-limbed and insouciant and insolent as a girl, and had stood up and left the table, left the room, and Michael, now that all that was opposite him was her empty chair, could stop, breathe out, wonder whether Eve, who was scraping at breadcrumbs with her napkin, if she looked up, would see the surprise of it written all over him.
There are even some sections of poetry in the book where Michael describes his new-found feelings, and I found these both amusing and effective. Quite a revelation for me as I usually find the inclusion of poetry in novels both pretentious and dangerously sentimentalised. Here it works. And suits the book’s structure. Anyway, towards the end I was also gripped by the way Michael reveals his inner meltdown (a natural response to how the story draws to its close) whilst carrying on as best he can in supporting the changed family. It rang very true, and true to the male experience of loss, I think. At least that’s how it felt to me.
It’s Eve however (note that name …) – the mother of the family – who undergoes the most radical transformation. It did irritate me somewhat that she’s a moderately successful writer (though suffering from writers’ block), as I feel we have far too many writers writing about writers as it is. If you see what I mean. Still, I did at least appreciate this brief comment:
Eve (42) sat in the church with all its buried dead outside under the grasses and paving stones and wondered how her books were doing on Amazon. She wondered if there was anywhere in the village she could go online and look it up and find out. Then she wondered how her books would do on the real Amazon, if she were to drop them into it off the side of a boat.
Hell, we’ve all been there as writers; surely, after all, the dang books couldn’t do any worse? Ah well. So I enjoyed Eve, partly for the journey she experiences, for her doubts, and for the decision she takes towards the end that changes everything. That decision (without giving too much away, as far as I can help it) takes her out of the norms of the life she’s living and sets her on an utterly individual path. She takes “a gap year from her own history.” I liked that very much – as I always do when literary, or indeed real-life, women step out of the scaffolding of textual and social expectations in any form. More power to our elbow is what I say. Her actions and those glorious and very clever final few pages are utterly magical and bring us full-circle almost to where we started. But with very different and deeper resonances.
Because of this and all the delights that came before, I felt changed and moved as a reader, and highly satisfied by this surreal and challenging read. Now that’s style.
The Accidental by Ali Smith, Penguin Books 2007, ISBN: 978 0 141 03501 7
[Anne is always happy to read about characters whose names start with an “A”. To discover more slightly bizarre fictional people, please click here.]