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[746] The Accidental – Ali Smith

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” Think of it this way. A pretty woman arrives at the door. She is ragged, hungry and lost. She is knocking on all the doors of all the houses to see who’ll be generous; it is a test. The innocent family, out of the goodness of its heart, takes her in, feeds her and offers her hospitality. ” (The Ending, p.270)

The Accidental is a novel with a very simple plot but the execution of which is a literary feat, purely stylistic speaking. It is written in a series of stream-of-consciousness, with every chapter representing the internal thoughts of each of the four members in a family. Astrid is an angsty 12-year-old who is only interested in video-filming. Her brother, Magnus, is a surly and confused adolescent whose prank has caused the death of a girl in school. Michael, their father, is a randy academic going through mid-life crisis, and his way of coping is philandering with his female students. His wife, Eve, a self-absorbed, negligent mother, is supposed to be writing the next in her series of “Genuine Articles,” books that relate the lives of people who died in the second war.

What was happy? What was an ending? She had been refusing real happiness for years and she had been avoiding real endings for just as long, right up to the moment she had opened the front door on her own emptied house . . . (The Ending, p.295)

The Smarts is a family with no real ties to each other. They hardly communicate—and their reflection are solipsistic bubbles of their own. Into this “atomized” family one day walks Amber, a thirty-something blonde wastrel with no love of social niceties. She turns up on the doorstep on the Smarts’ summer house claiming her car has broken down. Ludicrous as it seems, Michael assumes she has come to interview his wife, while Eve assumes she’s one of the Michael’s student mistresses. Somehow this mysterious stranger, charming both Astrid and Magnus, manages to stay with them for several weeks until she is cast out by Eve. Who is she? What does she want?

As clever as Smith is, the book is dull and a pain to read. Smith takes the rather derivative plot and turns the story into an experiment in literary exercise. Monologues, asides, poetry—all find their way into the narrative. The stream-of-consciousness is so indulgent, so excessive that it is a disconnected flow of tangent upon tangent and layer upon layer, until one is drowning in the metaphorical, wondering what happened to the action in the “real world” of the story. Ye, for all that, the novel about the interplay of real life and story delivers more flash than substance. I find the ubiquitous demonstration of her wit and of the depth of knowledge on numerous subjects distracting and digressive. The book needs to be edited down to the essence that is relevant to the characters.

306 pp. Penguin Fiction UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Ali Smith

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I must have mistaken Ali Smith for another author who writes chick-lit. With much gratefulness for a friend who points me to her direction, I have been on a hunt for her books although luck hasn’t been on my side. The Scottish writer has a long roll of honors and merits. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and winner of Scottish Book Award, Clare Maclean Prize, and Whitbreak Book Award.

To say that Smith plans her writings conscientiously gives the impression that she might be an over-deliberate, uninspiring writer, but this is very far from the truth. The themes she chooses to write about are ambitious: love, particularly but not only, that between women, death, loss, guilt, grief, illness, time and the chasms of misunderstanding between couples or the generations, where affection can become lost in impatience and incomprehension. They are themes that most writers touch upon, yet she seems to see them in a new, fresh light.

I will begin my Ali Smith journey with The Accidental, the story of the Smart family and Amber, the strange girl who comes into their lives one hot summer holiday. Her mysterious tales force each member of the family to view themselves in a new light.