- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Hamish Hamilton; 1st Edition edition (June 16 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1845058240
- ISBN-13: 978-0241141908
- ASIN: 0241141907
- Product Dimensions: 14.1 x 3 x 22.1 cm
- Shipping Weight: 558 g
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,013,199 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Accidental Hardcover – Jun 28 2005
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The Accidental begins with a meditation on beginnings, as though we have been invited to witness the conception and gestation of the book itself. Does day begin with dawn? Does a personality begin in the womb? Is the beginning different for everyone? It would seem so, for The Accidental begins anew with each new chapter, offering the perspectives of its characters as refracted through the lens of a third-person narrator. Subtle changes within the characters become apparent as the novel progresses. They begin again and again as though reborn to grow up and grow out of themselves into different people.
Astrid is a twelve-year-old who "wants to know" things. Bullied at school, precocious, a bit of a dreamer, she sets off with her camera "taping dawns" for "research and archive". Astrid's voice catches our attention like a breeze moving to and fro in a free indirect style in which the big questions are handled with the playfulness of a young, agile mind: "Of course science can prove, typical and ironic, that her hand is not actually hitting the chair by dividing down the distance smaller and smaller. She hits it again. Ow." Everything in Astrid's world is "substandard", boring, asleep; only she is awake, inquisitive, scavenging images from the "dump" she lives in, for "there is nothing else to do here."
"Here" is the "boring nowhere" Norfolk holiday home where Astrid, her brother Magnus, mother Eve, and "wankstain" stepfather Michael are to spend the summer.
Astrid's teenage brother Magnus is even smarter than she is, but his voice is less alluring, with a repetitiveness that can be annoying. Magnus, we learn, is immobilised by guilt due to his part in the death of a girl who killed herself after he superimposed a photograph of her face onto the image of a naked woman. "They took her head. They put it on the other body. Even though it was a lie it became true. It became more her than her." As a result of his actions Magnus finds himself awakened from an "illusion of innocence", and now refers to his younger self as "Hologram Boy". His dream childhood has turned into an existential nightmare, one choice having changed everything so that now "everything is pointless".
While Magnus manipulates the images of real people online and sees words as pointless, his mother, Eve, resurrects real people through fiction, imagining what might have become of them had they lived longer. Eve has had some success with her "Genuine Article" novel series, but she is experiencing a crisis of confidence. Like Magnus, Eve feels she has fallen from innocence (her first husband was called Adam). Nostalgic for the past, Eve speaks of a golden age of perpetual summers and unlocked doors. Though her first marriage was no Garden of Eden, Eve yearns for her lost innocence, for a "hologram self". Her husband Michael "doesn't find beginnings hard, and is always beginning something new", but Eve is disturbed by unforeseen turns, preferring life to resemble the formulaic novels in which she completes the incomplete lives of World War II victims.
Michael, a philandering English lecturer, is like a guest from a Philip Roth novel; he's conscious of getting older, but does not let this, or his wife and stepchildren, stop him from sleeping with his young female students. There are parallels between Michael and Magnus to such a degree that it seems Smith is suggesting that M is for Man and all men think with an organ that plays one tune only. However, sensitivity and a sense of responsibility are present in both characters, and Smith's women are just as captivated as her men when a mysterious woman arrives to live with the family.
No one knows who Amber is or where she comes from, only that her car has broken down and that she has nowhere to stay. Or so she says. A hairy- legged neo-hippie non-conformist, Amber is the traffic light demanding we pause before convention, making us question the flow of traffic we find ourselves in, the "fixed directions" our lives are set to like "escalators going round and round". Amber has the hypnotic charisma of a manipulative politician. Everyone wants to be with her, to impress her, yet she is nasty to them all-a blatantly unpleasant, bluntly rude "demonstration of magnetic gravity". Amber sees a world in which a consumer culture consumes individuals only to regurgitate superficial uniformity. She is like an actor from the theatre of cruelty, shocking each family member out of their complacency, reminding them they need not subscribe to preconceived ideas that "girls have to be a certain way, boys have to be a certain way." Leading life differently "will mean walking against the crowd," Magnus realises as he walks out of a cinema in which he imagined a modern-day Plato's cave. Amber is like the man who turned his back on the shadows to embrace the light only to return later, disturbing those who had become adjusted to the absence of light. But the parallels in this novel are manifold, and it is Eve, not Magnus, who grasps that "Amber means lamps lit in the dark." Amber really is a lamp in the dark brightening the mirror ahead of each character, enlightening them about their personal limits and constraints, and somehow giving them the strength to smash through the false image of themselves and start anew. When the Smarts come back to their home and find an empty house, it is as though Amber has emptied their cave of its shadows both metaphorically and literally.
The Accidental is stunning in places. Near the end, however, I felt something had been lost, that the characters, poured so strongly onto the page at the outset, had been diluted by wordplay and a gimmicky sonnet sequence in the middle. At times Smith's talent seems to betray its own magic: we might not see how it's done but are made aware of it being done; the spell is broken as it is cast. However, the complexity, the willingness to take risks, the sheer ambition here are admirable, though perhaps the real accomplishment is Smith's refusal to take the same easy route that Eve takes with her "life affirming", her "Genuine Articles". As in life, nothing is ever too clear, even for the very smart Smarts, and Smith smartly refuses to shed too much light, choosing instead to leave her readers, as Dr. Chekhov once described his own readers to a friend, the jury.
Ross Wilson (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
About the Author
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and now lives in Cambridge. She is the author of Free Love, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction 2001) and The Whole Story and Other Stories.
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Secondly, Smith's wordplay is too cute and clever by half. It's as if she's trying to impress a creative writing professor with her overflowing originality. After awhile, it intrudes unpleasantly into the story. Her writing needed a more mature hand to guide it in this work.
I notice that "The Accidental" was nominated for several literary prizes including the Booker. I can only conclude that the literary establishment has taken complete leave of its senses to make such a recommendation. Smith is more than capable of writing prize worthy literature (and has done) and I look forward to finding further examples as I read more of her oeuvre. "The Accidental", however, does not qualify as her finest achievement.
While I enjoyed the writing and at times became deeply involved in the story I found it didn't sustain my interest right to the end. Astrid and Magnus are the most fully realised characters in the book, and Magnus' pain over his role in a cyber-bullying incident that led to a girl's suicide is heart wrenching. The adults are less successful and it was hard to get over the implausibility that they would allow a complete stranger into their lives, giving her free access to their children, or that Eve would care so little about her husband's philandering ways. I know Michael's interest in clichés is supposed to be ironic considering he is one big cliché, but I never connected with his character.
Amber is an enigma, both angel and devil who shows them things about themselves, empowers them to be more honest and assertive, while manipulating them for her own purposes. This book is meant to say something deep about modern culture, but by the end of it I had absolutely no idea what this was. I was left feeling confused, especially by Eve's decision to follow in Amber's footsteps in America by getting herself invited into the home of strangers on false pretences - was it to shake the horrible woman up the way Amber had (literally) shaken her up? So to sum up the writing is great, but the storyline is a bit meh for me. Hopefully I'll gain some more insight into this book through my class discussion.
In "The Accidental," it's not hard to figure out who author Ali Smith wants to be (or is). She's Amber, a sort of stochastic herbal essence, an earth-flavored, barefoot, dandelion wine of a woman who flounces in a figurative free-fall into the core of the book, twirls about with mad abandon and reckless sexiness, and disappears with just as much speed and consequence. She puts dirty thighs on Heisneberg's uncertainty principle and drops the drawers of chaos theory, manhandling the nuts and bolts inside.
Okay, I'm sorry, I'll be less poetic, even I think Smith herself would appreciate such an out-of-the-lines description. Smith's writing is equally unfettered, and for people who like the idea of meandering through prose the way you might meander through a lovely (and creepy) forest, "The Accidental" is something to cuddle up to. The whole novel reads like one long word game, and even if that means the seriousness of its import is sometimes smeared aside, it also means that for people who love the English language, well, there's plenty here to enjoy.
But that import. Let me not forget the import.
The story is about the family Smarts. Eve is a struggling writer, Michael is an oversexed professor, Magnus is a tortured teen with a secret, and Astrid is a identity-challenged female (one of those thirteen-year-old daughters that cannot accurately be called either girl, woman, or even young lady). Their problems aren't particularly astounding or new, and in many cases, it's hard to sympathize with them, since their troubles are self-brewed and administered (or, in the case of Astrid, normal enough to be boring).
Amber doesn't sympathize with them either. She appears one day at their summer cottage and their lives begin to change. She manipulates and motivates them in the same way any good author drives and directs her characters. The only difference here is that the characters are aware of the manipulation. Step aside, Priandello. Smith's gonna show you a thing or two.
It works in fits and starts (much in the same way that the metaphorical character names are simultaneously profound and heavy-handed), depending on who you sympathize with. I found myself most closely drawn to the adolescent Astrid, but only because her pre-teen angsts were so accurately set up and then so cleanly knocked down. Magnus's shackles of misery and his subsequent liberation I found clever but overdrawn. Eve's self-doubts and dramatics were powerfully done, but ultimately watered down. And Michael, well, the man may well have not existed in the book. As an English professor, some of his sections manage to have the most interesting writing and yet still say the least out of anyone's. Perhaps that's the point.
The book shows us the same things in four different ways, and it's entertaining in the way of jugglers and Rubik's Cubes. It's ultimately the point of the novel that gets in the way, its drive to be something serious. Eve's section ends with a sort-of back-loop to what started the novel, and it's far too cute for the book's own good. She tries to learn and emulate Amber, the novel's catalyst, and although Smith suggests it leads to redemption, I have my doubts.
Because, although Amber is certainly an intriguing character, she is ultimately a marionette with about four strings too many. The book is occasionally punctuated with brief Amber vignettes; related primarily to movies, they are supposed to give us a glimpse into Amber's genesis and upbringing in a world of celluloid and Act 3 miracles, to show us where her free-spirited anarchy found its first birth, and to explain -- in some small measure -- why (or how) this strange woman alters the lives along her seemingly uncharted path. It's Smith's way of bear-hugging the character, of petting her fondly by the fire of her soul.
It's a little patronizing, but it's also understandable. Amber is any author's dream -- something mysterious and sexy, a controlled explosion. Smith wants to use her to teach us something, and even if I didn't feel particularly educated after her exposure (can you guess if the Smarts get smarter?), I did enjoy myself. That part probably wasn't an accident.