I had heard of this book before, but had never read anything by Ali Smith. I brought it during my recent beach vacation and finished it quickly. My wife snapped this great photo of it next to the ocean, and I realized this was the perfect setting. The writing in this book is so beautifully smooth that it flows like the water. Smith brings such attention to the specifics of words, letters and sounds, that the language takes on a life all its own.
The Accidental is told through the individual viewpoints of the Smart family. There’s Astrid, a precocious twelve-year-old who uses her video camera to both capture the world and to filter it her own way. Her older brother Magnus blames himself for the tragic suicide of a fellow student. Their step-father Michael is a university professor who has been sleeping around with several of his students. Finally, we have the mother Eve, a writer of fictional interviews of famous people, who is suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. Perhaps finally is not the right word to use with Eve because there is one other character in the book. Amber is a thirty-something woman who shows up one day at the doorstep of the Smart’s summer rental in Norfolk. Her origins are a mystery, and she both lies and tells honesty with equal intensity. Amber’s integration into the lives of the family lead them to explore both themselves and each other.
“I am Alhambra, named for the place of my conception. Believe me. Everything is meant. From my mother: grace under pressure; the uses of mystery; how to get what I want. From my father: how to disappear, how to not exist.”
The mysterious Amber is the central figure that both brings the story into cohesion but also keeps the family apart. She is shrouded in so much mystery that we never truly learn her backstory. Her disappearance at the end of the novel is as sudden as her arrival is at the beginning. There are a few sections told from her point-of-view but they are so wrapped up in half-truths, fables, and contemporary references, that we never gain the full story. However, throughout the novel an interesting phenomenon occurs. In the beginning, I needed to know her backstory, but as I was moving rapidly through the book, I realized that it’s not important. This is a novel that deals with perception, both of ourselves and of how we see those around us. The character of Amber serves as a device to allow the intense scrutiny of the novel’s four main characters. She serves as both a centralized figure but also a peripheral one.
I loved the different structures within the book. There are three main sections, titled the beginning, the middle, and the end. Each section begins with a short introduction from Amber before alternating between the four members of the Smart family. This is the first time I’ve read an entire novel that is written in a stream of consciousness style. I loved it! You read each character’s thoughts and really get to know them. This style of writing can be both expansive but also intimate so I think it takes a truly gifted writer to be able to make that form work. Smith succeeds beautifully. Clearly, this is a work that was heavily influenced by the books of Virginia Woolf, particularly her novel To The Lighthouse. There is even a great nod to this classic in the middle of the book. I will definitely make reading it a priority this year.
“Change had happened. Everything rhymed now. Yes, ab was following ab, and then the way cd followed cd, ef, gg…Because he taught this sort of thing all day he tuned straight to it, like a radio frequency: Michael’s world had become a sonnet sequence(y).”
Smith’s use of a stream of consciousness style allows the voices of the four main characters to be distinct. She clearly has a gift for knowing her characters and has a playful side as she has fun with the style of her writing unique to each member of the family. For example, Magnus is a math genius so Smith uses this trait throughout his story. There are even some sections of poetry in the book where Michael describes his new-found feelings that I found quite amusing at first and then very effective. It really works in the context that it’s used. I found myself surprisingly drawn to the character of Michael, which perhaps can be the strongest testament to Smith’s writing. We could easily hate him considering he is a cheater and a manipulator of his female students. However, Smith manages to paint a compassionate side to him as indicated by his inner breakdown while trying to continue holding his family together.
I found that each member of the Smart family represented a very human aspect of myself. However, it was Eve, the mother of the family, whose journey I found most compelling. She has the most radical transformation out of everyone. At first, I was slightly disappointed in the direction her story took, but I realize now that it works. There is a real sense of closure, as Eve’s journey echoes the beginnings of the book. Everything comes full circle. I definitely could relate to Eve’s troubles at the beginning with her writer’s block. As someone who has attempted to wield the almighty pen himself, I can empathize with those long hours of staring at a blank page. Eve’s outer and inner journeys reveal so much more though, and her final section definitely shows how much she has changed.
I was particularly drawn by the scene when Eve visualizes alternate versions of herself, the people she could have been had she gone in a different direction. Who hasn’t felt that way at one time or another? In a less competent writer’s hands, this scene could have been ridiculous. Here it is sublime.
Despite being one of my beach selections, this was a highly challenging yet satisfying read. Smith is a writer I will definitely keep an eye out for in the future. Sometimes style can overshadow substance. That is not the case here. Style and story merge together beautifully as pure poetry in motion.
“There are things that can’t be said, because it’s hard to have to know them.”