London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005,
Reviewed by Shirley Jones
“What an accidental affair this living is ” writes Virginia Woolf in “The Mark on the Wall,” her meditation on time, materiality and subjectivity. And there are many echoes of Woolf to be found in The Accidental, Ali Smith’s second novel. Woolf searches for an image to encapsulate “the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard.” The characters in The Accidental certainly experience life in this vein. Later, talking of the fragility of self-image, Woolf writes of the looking glass smashing and people being only
What is seen by other people. As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes. And the novelists in future will realise more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course, there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number...
Ali Smith came to prominence in the world of British publishing with her first novel, Hotel World, which was short-listed in 2001 for both the Booker and Orange prizes for fiction, and which won two Scottish Arts Council Awards and the Encore Award. Previously, Smith had published two collections of short-stories, Free Love and Other Stories (1995) and Other Stories and Other Stories (1999). In 2003 she produced The Whole Story and Other Stories. The Accidental was short-listed for the James Tait Black Memorial prize and the Orange Prize; it won the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award and the 2006 Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. These awards place Smith as a major voice in modern British writing. Smith’s short stories are sharp and witty. There is a continuum in her work of formal, thematic, and stylistic concerns and obsessions: she ponders the significance of beginnings, middles and endings; she is inspired by the magic of imagery in its many forms; she is engaged by shiftiness and slipperiness of the human mind. Whilst Smith provides a clear-eyed vision of contemporary life in subtle and insightful detail, her plots take off from the premise, what if?
Like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves both The Accidental and Hotel World feature multiple narratives constructed around an enigmatic central figure. In Hotel World, the bizarre death of a young woman is reflected though the perspectives of those who are both intimate and tangential to the incident. The hotel is a space where people find themselves in body but not necessarily in spirit. In The Accidental, a family, whose individual members are all experiencing some kind of crisis, is visited by a young woman called Amber who simply walks into the Norfolk house they are renting for the summer. Because the adults of the group, Eve and Michael, make assumptions about each other—that Eve is to be interviewed about her work, that Michael is having another insignificant affair—the young woman is invited to stay for dinner and then allowed into the life of the family. Each character shares a secret with her. The novel shifts between the perspectives of Astrid, a bullied 12 year old who is obsessed with what she can see through her video camera; Magnus, a scientific six-former racked with guilt because a schoolboy prank involving a fellow pupil and internet pornography has gone fatally wrong; Michael, a stereotypically lecherous lecturer trying to avoid the cliché of a mid-life crisis, and Eve, a writer of successful popular faction (“autobiotruefictinterviews”) who finds herself blocked.
Each character is dramatically and differently affected by the intrusion of Amber into their lives. Astrid acquires a best friend who leads her interestingly into trouble and who usefully sorts out the school bullies. Magnus experiences redemption through angelic intercourse. Michael has to accept that this is one woman who will not fall for his charms and Eve is at first shaken (literally) and then “moved beyond belief” by a kiss. All of the family are seduced by Amber. Smith charts the changes wrought on the family through narratives which convey distinctive thought patterns and verbal tics. She catches the stroppiness and insecurity of Astrid who thinks in “i.e.[s]” and “etc.[s],” considers herself “weird” and much of the world “substandard,” but who revels in Amber’s jokes. Magnus determines that “Amber = unbelievable” and, when she has gone, wonders “is there a calculus for sadness?”. Under the influence of Amber, Michael’s life becomes a sonnet sequence exploring the possible meanings of Amber:
Eve, who has made her fortune re-writing other people’s stories is forced to review her own, look at herself truthfully and go in search of her origins. In this new life we see an ironic reflection of Amber’s.
And all through the beginning, ending and middle of each family member’s story we have a dissection of Amber in all of her glorious facets: a child conceived in a cinema with a history that can be charted in terms of popular culture and the development of technology. She is myth and reality, imagination and science, the play of light and sound:
Readers who do not share this idiom will miss out. Smith’s novel is a clever and compelling revelation of the modern world: her work is resolutely and challengingly contemporary in plot, language, psychology and field of reference. Her aesthetic project is asserted succinctly in this novel: “We need stories about now”.