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The AccidentalReview - The Accidental
A Novel
by Ali Smith
Highbridge Audio, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Mar 7th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 10)

Although the central theme of The Accidental is of an unhappy middle class family who do not communicate with each other, which is at best well-worn, Ali Smith's novel is mesmerizing. It is told by the four members of the family, in their different voices, and the mysterious visitor Amber who stays with them in their holiday home. (The audio book uses five actors in the performance, one for each of the main characters, and this works well.) Astrid is twelve years old, and her brother Magnus is seventeen. Their parents are Michael, who teaches literature at a local university, and Eve, who has written a series of commercially successful books about the lives of people who were killed in the Second World War.

This Smart family has left their London home to spend the summer in rural Norfolk. Astrid carries an expensive camera around with her everywhere, filming everything. She spends most of her time alone, thinking about the world, trying to entertain herself. Magnus spends most of his time alone in his room, not even staying with his family at dinner. He is a geeky awkward boy who has done something at school he deeply regrets, and he seems very depressed. Their stepfather Michael is a philandering middle-aged man embroiled in department politics. Eve spends her days sitting at her word processor trying to work on the next book in her series, and has little time for the rest of her family. Then one day a woman called Amber turns up at the house and ends up staying with them. The children become devoted to Amber and the family starts talking to each other again. Amber has almost a magical effect on them, allowing each of them to live better lives and feel real emotions. Amber remains an elusive figure throughout the book, leaving us wonder where she came from and whether she is hiding from people in her past. She tells the truth about people around her, although it quickly becomes clear that others are not ready to hear the truth.

Smith's language varies according to the voice of the person she is writing in. Astrid's words are simple and her sentences are short. While it is inconceivable that a 12-year-old would actually talk to herself as eloquently as Astrid does, she is nevertheless a convincing character, with quirky interests and typical reactions. Similarly, Magnus' thoughts are convincing despite being very unlike the real internal stream of consciousness of a teen boy. Michael comes across as the least likeable of the family, pompous and self-satisfied, pleased with his own cleverness. Eve seems lost, out of touch with her family, and uncomfortable with her life. All four of these characters are intriguing, and we want to know what happens to them. Yet at the same time, they seem to be abstractions in some sense, the whole novel being a thesis about modern society. Yet, with the unexplained figure of Amber, who seems in some ways like the author confronting her characters with their problems, makes it difficult to know exactly what the thesis is.

We might expect that once the family starts talking to each other and the children cheer up, their problems would be solved. It is not so simple, however. Magnus' troubles were not just his own personal emotions; he had helped other boys create a composite image of a girl with her head on a pornographic image of another woman, and then emailed it out to a school email list. The girl had then killed herself. Amber takes away Magnus' depression about his actions by carrying on an affair with him. He is 17 and she is in her thirties. They are secretive, and deceive the rest of the family about their trysts. Magnus does not own up to his parents about how he has contributed to another's suicide. Once Amber moves in with the family, Michael falls in love with her, but she does not encourage him. He does not own up to his series of affairs with his students. Eve does not spend any more time with her children: Amber simply acts as a friend to Astrid, but she is not a real friend. Amber's actions are not altruistic, and her motives seem selfish. Amber herself seems entirely isolated and emotionally closed. So Amber is not providing a solution to the family's troubles.

Even the title of the book, The Accidental, suggests it is about an abstract theme, the role of accidents and coincidences in life; moral luck and fate. The story is open to multiple interpretations, although the ending does not leave much room for optimism about the possibility of happiness. Yet the tone of the writing seems more important than the plot: Smith conveys some sympathy for the preoccupations and problems of her characters, but impatience too. She wins the reader over by raising questions about what happens at certain dramatic moments, and then cleverly dissolving the resulting tensions. Time flows backwards and forwards, and the characters become concerned with small bizarre ideas. The reader is kept off balance, wondering what is going on, almost in a battle of wits with the author. There is no moral center to the story, and the reader is never quite reassured. This makes Smith's novel striking, memorable, and more provocative than most that address family dysfunction. Highly recommended.

 

Link: Highbridge Audiobook

 

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2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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