Novelist Ali Smith's books (HOTEL WORLD, THE ACCIDENTAL) have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and it is certainly no mystery as to why. Her writing is fresh, her character development is thorough and refreshingly consistent, and her motivation for writing clearly is not to prove a point, to push an overarching authorial voice, or to flaunt her obvious talent, but simply to allow her characters to tell a good story. Winner of the 2005 Whitbread Book Award, THE ACCIDENTAL is such an engrossing and contemplative novel that you'll want to read it a second time in order to pick up what you might have missed the first go-round.
Although Smith's stream-of-consciousness writing style takes a bit of getting used to, it is inevitably the glue that holds this fascinating book together. Split into three sections (the beginning, the middle and the end), the story slowly and deftly unfolds as the perspective switches from character to character, narrator to narrator. What we are left with at the novel's conclusion is a patchworked, pieced-together glimpse into a broken down yet blazingly human family before, during and after the strange summer that permanently altered each member and changed their outlook on life (and each other) in mystifying ways.
Before "escaping" for a summer to a rented cottage in Norfolk, the Smarts (12-year-old Astrid, 17-year-old Magnus, and parents Eve and Michael) resemble a typical dysfunctional family. Astrid spends her days either walled up inside her imagination or behind a video camera filming other people's "far more interesting" lives. Magnus sequesters himself in his room, refusing to bathe, eat, or speak to his family after a school prank he masterminded results in a classmate's suicide. Michael sleeps with countless of his students at the university and ignores his family, and Eve halfheartedly whittles away at the writing block that is preventing her from beginning her next novel. Collectively, they are a pathetic sight to behold --- incommunicative, worn-out, and apathetic about each other and their future.
Enter Amber MacDonald, the barefoot and unshaven thirty-something year-old stranger, who appears one day out-of-the-blue at the cottage and stays long enough to make a few unexpected --- and frightfully lasting --- impressions on each of them.
Despite the fact that she isn't directly connected to the family (although each of them assumes she's a friend, lover or colleague of the other), Amber manages to worm her way into the Smarts' day-to-day routine.
"Amber is ruthless with Astrid. She is unbelievably rude to Michael. As if I give a monkey's f--- about what you think about books. She is bored silly by his mother, makes no attempt to hide it. Uh-huh. So: Astrid is besotted. Michael looks more determined every time. His mother gets keener to dredge up 'interesting' things to say. It is like a demonstration of magnetic gravity. It is like watching how the solar system works. As concerns Magnus himself, Amber = true. Amber = everything he didn't even know he imagined possible for himself."
Accidentally --- or quite on purpose --- her magnetic presence becomes a turning point for each of them and forces them to take control of their lives, presumably for the better.
In the end, Amber disappears from the scene (after being banished by Eve), and what follows in the last section (a plot twist; universal questions posed by each of the characters, including reflective musings on the nature of truth, the role of chance, and the importance of choice in life; and deliciously long and quiet yet immensely powerful sentences) is what makes the novel worth reading again and again. Indeed, Ali Smith's THE ACCIDENTAL is truly worthy of the praise it has garnered thus far and is the mark of a writer with a rare gift of divine expression and an acute insight into the frailty of human existence.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling