The Accidental Hardcover – Large Print, May 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Heather O'Neill plays Amber, a mysterious stranger who wangles her way into the lives of a vacationing English family spending the summer in a remote cottage. O'Neill reads with studious detachment and a persistent air of mischief, as if the entire story is a particularly juicy practical joke. Given Amber's predilection for wreaking havoc in her new adopted family's comfortably misguided lives, the emotion is supremely apropos. O'Neill is joined by a cast of performers, including Ruth Moore as the perpetually harried, perpetually preoccupied Eve, who spends all her time dreaming of the characters of the latest historical novel she's writing, and Stina Nielsen as Astrid, a 12-year-old with a frightening imagination and a propensity for recording the world on her video camera. The bulk of the book, though, is read by O'Neill, who provides a suitably nuanced reading, at times placid, at times flashing an air of free-floating menace. It is her work, above all, that brings Smith's novel to fully fleshed existence.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
British novelist and Booker Prize nominee Smith (Hotel World, 2001) renders acrobatic prose that seems in a perpetual state of acceleration. At the opening of her mesmerizing new novel, a barefoot, thirtysomething stranger named Amber abandons her broken-down car and arrives at the doorstep of Eve and Michael Smart, who are summering in Norfolk, England, with Eve's children, 12-year-old Astrid and 17-year-old Magnus. Amber stays for dinner and quickly weaves her way into the Smarts' lives, befriending impressionable Astrid; seducing math-whiz Magnus (guilt-ridden over his unwitting role in the suicide of a fellow student); enchanting their haughty, adulterous stepfather, Michael; and swiftly sizing up their mother, Eve, a writer conflicted over the success of her hack novels. The novel is alternately narrated by each member of the Smart family, but it is candid Astrid who steals the show, wandering through town with digital camera in hand. Some readers may be frustrated by the transparency of Amber, who serves as little more than a catalyst, prompting dramatic changes in the lives of her "accidental" hosts. Allison Block
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
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Well, I confess that my feelings vacillated wildly between curious enthusiasm and downright frustration when reading the book. Amber was conceived in a cinema. That much we know....trouble is, that's also as much as we'll ever know about her. Each chapter is dedicated by turns to a "family" character. There's Michael the philandering husband/stepfather, Eve the writer-in-selfdenial wife/mother, Magnus the mixed up suicidal teenage son and Astrid the camera-obsessed changeling of a daughter. The few pages devoted to Amber, the catalyst for the Smarts' miraculous transformation, are more like dividers, consisting of short bursts of social, pop cultural and cinematic history. So who's Amber, why does she affect each member of the Smart family the way she does and what's her motive ? Good questions, but we don't get any answers, so we'd better figure them out for ourselves, mustn't we ? I for one am inclined to see Amber as a not quite human character, an angel sent anonymously to jolt the Smarts out of their catatonic state and restore them to...what I don't quite know.
As long as Amber is around causing havoc or turning the lives of the Smarts inside out, you can feel the current's undertow and are encouraged to persevere. But when Eve calls Amber's bluff and throws her out of the household, the story loses steam and begins to stagnate. Finally, we are left with the hint that life is a circle when Eve finds herself potentially in Amber's position with another family but this is as much a mystery to me as the rest of the story. Maybe, Smith wants us to ask, "Will Eve go the same way as Amber ?"
The critics may be effusive in their praise for "The Accidental" but I suspect the rest of us are just going to have to take it on faith that "they know better than us" and be content with reading an award winning book that's not very accessible or entertaining.
This is an intelligent, carefully structured novel that is both funny and illuminating. A chance trip to watch the movie Love Actually leads Magnus, the confused young son of the family to ruminate on Plato's ideas about Belief and Illusion. Ali Smith is able to incorporate myth and philosophy into her wry look at ordinary modern life in a way that produces an entirely fresh way of seeing. From the minute details of life to the war in Iraq playing in the background, the methods we use to understand things are exposed and questioned. Whether seeing reality through the filter of Astrid's camera lens or the mathematical equations of Magnus, the way we view the world is scrupulously examined. But the characters have a sense that truth is still hidden from them leading them to use new tools to examine it. Ali Smith bravely experiments with language and the form of the novel to re-view life. If her technique is viewed by some as placing literary panache over essential meaning then Smith seems to answer this through her character the novelist Eve who responds, "It's not a gimmick. Every question has an answer." Smith cleverly constructs different paths to bring us to new answers.
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
Astrid's use of 'i.e' and 'and' was actually the thing that made me thing that this book could be something special. Because it IS exactly how I was when I was twelve, I remember saying things like that and it seemed like a very accurate observation. It shows her 'teen angst' mentality: everything is repetitive and needs explaining, and people are 'weird' or 'wankstains'. Astrid's voice was for me incredibly apt, and the fact that she didn't even know what i.e. stood for until she was told by Amber was touching in a way because Astrid sees herself as so worldly and bored by everything.
I was disappointed by the chapters told from Amber's point of view because we learnt next to nothing about her and the pop culture references largely left me confused because I'm too young to understand :( But I want to find out about them now.
I wasn't biased by reading rave reviews, as I just picked it up of a shelf in the library and thought 'this looks ok' and took it home after never having heard of it before. All I can say is that it got inside my head, and I think that speaks for itself.