There’s nothing quite like finding a new writer. Given the overwhelming number of books available it’s not statistically difficult, but given the constraints of time and inclination, it’s not so easy. Why stray from the familiar? Maybe because change can actually be good, especially in book form. Particularly when it leads to Ali Smith, who has published several collections of short stories and a couple of novels, and whose work has won praise from Jeanette Winterson, among others.
The Accidental is her latest book and it’s easy to understand what Winterson admires. Smith clearly loves stringing words together and making them work in a variety of ways. There are five characters in the novel: Eve Smart, an author in her early 40s who has experienced a modest literary success writing fictional biographies and is struggling to begin her newest book; her second husband, Michael Smart, a literature professor with a huge habit of sleeping with his female students; and Eve’s two children from her first marriage, Magnus and Astrid. Magnus, 17, is about to be expelled from school for his part in a practical joke that provoked a classmate’s suicide. Astrid is 12, which is pretty much a full-time job, particularly when you are spending the entire summer with your family in a small town in Norfolk, hardly a desirable location for a London teenager.
And not just any small town. According to Astrid, “the village is a dump. Post office, vandalized Indian restaurant, chip shop, little shop place that’s never open, place for ducks to cross the road. Ducks actually have their own roadsign! There is a sofa warehouse called Sofa So Good. It is dismal. There is a church. The church has its own roadsign, too. Nothing happens here except a church and some ducks, and this house is an ultimate dump. It is substandard. Nothing is going to happen here all substandard summer.”
The fifth character is a woman known as Amber who appears at the Smart summer home claiming car trouble. Eve thinks she’s one of Michael’s students while Michael assumes she has something to do with Eve. The novel is about the relationships she forms with each of the other characters. They all fall for her in their own way. There are many ways to fall and God knows the Smarts are more than ready to fall.
Smith organizes the novel into three parts: the beginning, the middle and, you guessed it, the end. A section of each part is told in the voice of one of the five characters. The writing is incredibly good and when combined with the structure of the novel, the overall effect is very powerful. In spite of the fact that there’s not a lot of action in the story, there is a great deal of tension, a huge sense of expectation. Much of it surrounds the character of Amber, since it’s impossible not to be drawn into the mystery of who she is and what she’s up to. It all becomes clear – kind of – but “the end” isn’t really the end, after all.
The pleasure of the novel is in the telling. In many novels, split narratives don’t work because the voices of the characters aren’t quite convincing or distinct. In the case of The Accidental, each of the characters is so well drawn that this isn’t a problem.
Unconventional novels can often collapse under the weight of their ambition leaving a reader stranded in an indecipherable narrative. Smith avoids the excesses of unconventional writing – the overly lyrical, the deliberately opaque and the outright whimsical – and delivers just the right amount of story and the right amount of drama. She also succeeds in generating some sympathy in the reader for characters who aren’t completely likeable. Michael, for example, is on the self-absorbed and arrogant side, but he’s also very articulate, literate, funny and charming. Eve hasn’t a clue about what’s going on with her children but she isn’t the worst mother in the world because of it. There’s fullness to the characters which adds depth.
Smith has written a novel about the different ways we make sense of the world with a particular emphasis on demonstrating what happens when our favourite sense-making strategies fail, or what happens when things simply don’t make sense no matter how you look at them.