The Accidental

I finished Ali Smith’s The Accidental the other night, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it; I’m not quite sure I like the ending, but that’s not a big deal with a book that is not plot driven. Mostly, I liked the book because of the writing, the way Smith captures the consciousness of each character.

I’ve always liked books that tell the same story from multiple perspectives because you can see how people react to the same situation in different ways or how they interpret a situation differently given their varied preoccupations and levels of knowledge. It shows how little solid information we have about anything and how our most prized opinions may be based on very incomplete knowledge. Smith tells her story from four different perspectives, each one appearing three different times: Eve, her second husband Michael, and two children from her first marriage, 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. They are on vacation in a rental house in Norfolk, and in walks Amber, a 30-something woman who wheedles her way into their lives. Each one thinks someone else in the family knows Amber, so no one seriously questions her presence. The story is about the havoc she wreaks as she develops different relationships with each family member and makes them confront who they are as individuals and as a family. There are short sections that are presumably from Amber’s perspective as well, although they don’t tell us much about who Amber is. She remains a mystery.

What works best is Smith’s use of language to capture the distinctive thought pattern of each character. The opening lines of Astrid’s story, for example, are interrupted by the words “Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski” in parentheses, as Astrid, in the midst of her thoughts on the dawn, also thinks about her own name and identity. She was born Astrid Berenski, but when her mother remarried, her name changed, and she is constantly thinking about what this change means. Eve’s first section is told in questions and answers, which is appropriate as she is a researcher and writer whose books are part biography, part fiction and who undergoes interviews herself. This format nicely captures her uncertainty and self-doubt. There is even a very odd section where’s Michael’s story transforms into a series of poems. Normally I would find this sort of thing irritating, but here it works: Michael is the sort who might start composing poems (bad ones) in his mind as a way of thinking about his life, and so it’s natural for the narrative to follow his mind there.

I found the characters almost equally compelling — which strikes me as hard to pull off when a writer is moving back and forth among four of them — and enjoyed being pulled into the emotional world of the Smart family. I read this book partly because I’ve heard very good things about Smith’s latest novel There But For The, and I wanted to read the Smith book on my shelves before moving on to the new one. I’m glad I did, and now I’m even more eagerly awaiting Smith’s latest.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “The Accidental

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! There’s a genuine playfulness to Ali Smith’s use of language that I really appreciate. It’s not about the reader struggling to make sense of what she’s doing; instead, I always get swept up and along with her writing and taken to new places. Lovely review, Rebecca.

  2. LIke litlove I’m so so glad you enjoyed it. It’s my favourite of her books, although There But For There is excellent too – they’re companion novels in many ways, as both are about mysterious interlopers. I absolutely agree that with Ali Smith the joy is in her use of language, the way she makes it do so many things. I remember reading the prologue of The Accidental – the conception scene in the cinema – and feeling giddy at all the linguistic cleverness. She’s fantastically funny in person too.

  3. Sounds like a fascinating read – definitely going on the tbr list! Great review!

  4. I read this last year and also really enjoyed it – even if there was something about the book that troubled me a little. I never could put my finger on what exactly troubled me – maybe something about the near pathological nature of the woman who shows up – but I loved her writing and I also really like getting the same story told in different voices. I’ve got her newest novel down on my list…

  5. I haven’t read this one of hers yet, but I’d thought that I would get to it for Orange January (so perhaps, instead, for Orange July); I really enjoyed her short stories, and I echo Victoria’s comment that she’s very funny in person. She was in Toronto for an authors’ festival some years ago and I still vividly her presence there when I am attending other events at the same venue.

  6. I like books told from different characters’ viewpoints, too. This one sounds great.

  7. I really have to read Smith one of these days. This sounds really good.

  8. Quite enjoyed this novel, but I just didn’t buy the central premise that someone could walk into a family and take up residence without it being questioned. I would read more Smith, though.

  9. I haven’t read Ali Smith. From your review, sounds like her style is avant garde and experimental?

  10. I read this one a few years ago and recall liking it–your post reminds me now of the story. I keep looking at her new one-we have it in my library, and a couple of times I’ve pulled it from the shelf thinking I would take it home, but I’m afraid I won’t like it as much as this one. I don’t always get on with experimental fiction, but this one worked well for me. Hope all is well with you by the way!

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