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The Accidental


The Accidental

Novelist Ali Smith's books (HOTEL WORLD, THE ACCIDENTAL) have been
shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and it is certainly no
mystery as to why. Her writing is fresh, her character development
is thorough and refreshingly consistent, and her motivation for
writing clearly is not to prove a point, to push an overarching
authorial voice, or to flaunt her obvious talent, but simply to
allow her characters to tell a good story. Winner of the 2005
Whitbread Book Award, THE ACCIDENTAL is such an engrossing and
contemplative novel that you'll want to read it a second time in
order to pick up what you might have missed the first

Although Smith's stream-of-consciousness writing style takes a bit
of getting used to, it is inevitably the glue that holds this
fascinating book together. Split into three sections (the
beginning, the middle and the end), the story slowly and deftly
unfolds as the perspective switches from character to character,
narrator to narrator. What we are left with at the novel's
conclusion is a patchworked, pieced-together glimpse into a broken
down yet blazingly human family before, during and after the
strange summer that permanently altered each member and changed
their outlook on life (and each other) in mystifying ways.

Before "escaping" for a summer to a rented cottage in Norfolk, the
Smarts (12-year-old Astrid, 17-year-old Magnus, and parents Eve and
Michael) resemble a typical dysfunctional family. Astrid spends her
days either walled up inside her imagination or behind a video
camera filming other people's "far more interesting" lives. Magnus
sequesters himself in his room, refusing to bathe, eat, or speak to
his family after a school prank he masterminded results in a
classmate's suicide. Michael sleeps with countless of his students
at the university and ignores his family, and Eve halfheartedly
whittles away at the writing block that is preventing her from
beginning her next novel. Collectively, they are a pathetic sight
to behold --- incommunicative, worn-out, and apathetic about each
other and their future.

Enter Amber MacDonald, the barefoot and unshaven thirty-something
year-old stranger, who appears one day out-of-the-blue at the
cottage and stays long enough to make a few unexpected --- and
frightfully lasting --- impressions on each of them.

Despite the fact that she isn't directly connected to the family
(although each of them assumes she's a friend, lover or colleague
of the other), Amber manages to worm her way into the Smarts'
day-to-day routine.

"Amber is ruthless with Astrid. She is unbelievably rude to
Michael. As if I give a monkey's f--- about what you think about
. She is bored silly by his mother, makes no attempt to
hide it. Uh-huh. So: Astrid is besotted. Michael looks more
determined every time. His mother gets keener to dredge up
'interesting' things to say. It is like a demonstration of magnetic
gravity. It is like watching how the solar system works. As
concerns Magnus himself, Amber = true. Amber = everything he didn't
even know he imagined possible for himself."

Accidentally --- or quite on purpose --- her magnetic presence
becomes a turning point for each of them and forces them to take
control of their lives, presumably for the better.

In the end, Amber disappears from the scene (after being banished
by Eve), and what follows in the last section (a plot twist;
universal questions posed by each of the characters, including
reflective musings on the nature of truth, the role of chance, and
the importance of choice in life; and deliciously long and quiet
yet immensely powerful sentences) is what makes the novel worth
reading again and again. Indeed, Ali Smith's THE ACCIDENTAL is
truly worthy of the praise it has garnered thus far and is the mark
of a writer with a rare gift of divine expression and an acute
insight into the frailty of human existence.


Reviewed by Alexis Burling on December 22, 2010

The Accidental
by Ali Smith

  • Publication Date: April 10, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1400032180
  • ISBN-13: 9781400032181