Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Accidental by Ali Smith

(306pp, Penguin, £7.99)

The blurb on the back of this book, which claims that the novel 'explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling,' does not do The Accidental justice. If I were to write a replacement blurb, I would start with the intensive, meditative portrayal of consciousness, the alienation of the everyday, the defamiliarisation of emotion and the comic polyphony of twenty-first century life.

Quite simply, this is a marvellous book (not surprising that it won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005 and was shortlisted for both the Man Booker in 2005 and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006). It is divided into three sections: beginning, middle and end, and further into five chapters in each section, told from the point of view of each main character. There's Astrid, the 12-year-old girl obsessed with the archiving of film footage and the discovery of new word and phrases; Magnus, her 16-year-old brother struggling with guilt over his partial responsibility for a schoolgirl's suicide as well as his own sexual awakening; Michael Smart, their stepfather, an English lecturer weaving a tangled web of lechery and infidelity in his search for a kind of linguistic supreme; Eve, the children's mother, trying to hold things together; and Amber, the stranger who arrives at their holiday home in Norfolk one day, and immediately entrances the whole family.

The plot of the novel is for me far less significant than its stylistic feel. Smith is funny, clever and has a poetic imagination matched even by few poets. I was entranced by this passage:
She had entered him like he was water. Like he was a dictionary and she was a word he hadn't known was in him. Or she had entered him more simply, like he was a door and she opened him, leaving him standing ajar as she walked straight in.
Smith is as sharply observant as a comedian, finding the ridiculous in life, silly phrases, individual obsessions. Her book oozes with the authenticity of life in 2003 even while she mocks the idea of the authentic through Eve's authorial pursuits, which involve recreating and manipulating the lives of 'Genuine' figures from the past. She is explicit in her narrations of sex, brutally, sometimes, and in some ways these scenes seem to mark the lack of sentimentality that characterises the whole novel. The figure of Amber, who is shocking at first for no other reason than her lack of conventional civility, becomes a kind of antithesis of every artificial rule we as a society have laid down for ourselves, and because of this she is powerfully attractive to the whole Smart family.

This is the kind of book that stays with you for a long time. My one trouble with it was its density: it is a novel to be read slowly, deliberately, like Virginia Woolf or Proust, like any stream-of-consciousness, but it is funnier and livelier, irreverent, rich with allusion and insistently peculiar. I wondered at first if either Astrid, Magnus or both were mentally ill - autistic possibly. They aren't, but I suspect this is what it is to see into someone else's consciousness: destabilising and weird to realise how much of what we think is translated into what is considered 'normal' so that we are not rejected by society. Smith understands this completely, and when I give the borrowed copy of The Accidental back to its rightful owner I'm going to buy my own and scribble all over it - which must be the sign of a brilliant read.


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