March 2006

Eoin Cunningham

fiction

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s The Accidental comes like her last book, Hotel World, in the wake of many glowing critical notices and award shortlistings. It’s the proud winner of the Whitbread for best novel, and may well have another bite at glory when the Orange comes around again. It’s an ambitious book, both in scope and the manner in which it is told.

There are a lot of good things about this novel, which have rightly been noted by other reviewers, chief amongst which is the experimental nature of the narrative. Something of a trademark for Smith, here it centers on a character called Amber, who may or may not exist in actuality and functions as a sort of hippie I Dream Of Jeannie for a family of the usual dysfunctional bent. She has lessons and new perspectives for all of them, which is appreciated to a greater and lesser degree by the various members she interacts with. Insofar as Smith has taken a standard dramatic scenario familiar to readers of a certain type of literary novel, she makes some efforts to transcend it. Whether or not it is a successful endeavour is rather more questionable. The Smart family go on holiday to Norfolk, where Eve, intends to write her latest "autobiotruefictinterview" book, (essentially a variant of the misery memoir genre based around a Q&A with dead non-celebrities), while her husband Michael spends his time plotting his next extracurricular undergraduate one-to-one. Their son Magnus has withdrawn into himself owing to the guilt he feels over his role in leading a girl at his school to suicide, and Astrid is just on holiday.

The appearance of Amber is the catalyst for change in the family, some of it welcome, for the children, less so for the adults. In fact, it’s the children who are the most interesting both to read, and one senses Smith found to write. They’re certainly more rounded and more enjoyable to read than their parents, who are at best one-dimensional retreads of stock characters. The main feeling one takes from this novel is that a very clever writer has decided to "do a Shakespeare" and borrow a stock situation, characters and plot to use as a framework from which their experimental literary riffs may take flight. That would be fine if it worked, but The Accidental ends up more an exercise in cleverness than a story. Equally, the reader’s enjoyment of The Accidental will be inextricably linked to their appetite for such an exercise. If you aren’t swept away by Smith’s undoubted way with words, and you rely on the bones of the story itself, you will be disappointed.

It’s far from a hanging crime to be ambitious and experimental, as is The Accidental, but it can be problematic. If the experiment works, all to the good, but if it does not, the writer runs the risk of alienating the reader. Smith is a fine writer who creates wonderful moments, especially in the journeys of Astrid and Magnus, but as a whole, the novel doesn’t quite hang together. The thinness of Michael and Eve’s characters mean that the narrative style becomes increasingly jarring. Smith repeats thoughts endlessly, sometimes with good effect, more often not, making large sequences self-conscious and disjointed. It’s a shame, because The Accidental could be a great book. As it is, it’s not quite what it could have been, which in this case makes it a frustrating read.

The Accidental by Ali Smith
Pantheon
ISBN: 0375422250
320 Pages