29 June 2009

Review: The Accidental by Ali Smith

I haven't got a particularly interesting story about how I came to read Ali Smith's The Accidental. I've never read any of her novels or stories before and I only got the book because it was free in a Buy 3 Get 1 Free sale. I couldn't find a fourth book I was interested in, but this one had a cover that reminded me of the cover of Jeffery Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, so why not?

It's quite likely that if I'd known more or if I'd skimmed or read the first few pages that I'd have given the entire thing a miss. I can't decide if that would have been a good thing or not. Probably not.

The Accidental tells the story of the Smart family – mother Eve, step-father Michael, children Astrid and Magnus – while they spend a summer in Norfolk, where Eve intends to write her next novel. A strange woman, Amber, appears one day and, each of the adults believing the other knows her, no one questions her presence until her strange behaviour begins to cross uncomfortable boundaries and change every member of the family.

Although I generally only quote one opening paragraph, for the sake of showing the book's format, I'm going to use a bit from each of the members of the Smart family.

Opening paragraph, Astrid:
The Beginning
of things – when is it exactly? Astrid Smart wants to know. (Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski.) 5.04 a.m. on the substandard clock radio. Because why do people always say the day starts now? Really it starts in the middle of the night at a fraction of a second past midnight. But it's not supposed to have begun until the dawn, really the dark is still last night and it isn't morning until the light, though actually it was morning as soon as it was even a fraction of a second past twelve i.e. that experiment where you divide something down and down like the distance between the ground and a ball that's been bounced on it so that it can be proved, Magnus says, that the ball never actually touches the ground. Which is junk because of course it touches the ground, otherwise how would it bounce, it wouldn't have anything to bounce
off, but it can actually be proved by science that it doesn't.
Opening paragraph, Magnus:
the beginning of this = the end of everything. He was part of the equation. They took her head. They fixed it on the other body. Then they sent it round everybody's email. Then she killed herself.

That noise outside is birds. It is swifts. They are making their evening noise. Birds are pointless now. Everything is pointless. They took her head. They put it on the other body. They sent it round the email list. Then she killed herself.
Opening paragraph, Michael:
the beginning again!
Extraordinary. Life never stopped being glorious, a glorious surprise, a glorious renewal all over again. Like new. No, not just like new but really new, actually new. Metaphor not simile. No
like between him and the word new. Who'd have believed it? That woman, Amber, had just pushed her plate away, pushed her chair back, long-limbed and insouciant and insolent as a girl, and had stood up and left the table, left the room, and Michael, now that all that was opposite him was her empty chair, could stop, breathe out, wonder whether Eve, who was scraping at breadcrumbs with her napkin, if she looked up, say she looked up and looked him straight in the face, would see the surprise of it written all over him. His face would have that astonished look more usually found on the face of a soprano hitting a high perfected oh.
Opening paragraph, Eve:
the beginning was keeping her awake. She by far preferred the edit, the end, where the work in the dark was over and you could cut and cut until you saw the true shape of things emerge.
Where was Eve, exactly? Eve was lying in bed in this too-dark, too-hot room, completely awake in the middle of the night, next to Michael completely asleep with his head under his pillow.
No other reason she couldn't sleep? No.
Honestly? Well. That girl of Michael's was a little distracting.
The idea of the story, the actual story is quite fascinating, though I don't quite want to say what happens or why its so interesting. The entire effect of the novel would be lost if a reader came into it knowing what will happen. Getting to that point, seeing how Amber slithers into their lives and changes every one of them, is so frustrating that I very nearly gave up on the book in the very first chapter, when Astrid's thoughts are running the show.

As you can see in each of the openings I posted, each section is written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, so that you're dropped right into the thoughts of each of the characters. And oh god, the tedium, the mundanity, the repetition, the way they circle around from one thought to the next and back again… ugh. It made me want to scream. (I was amused by Eve, who thinks very often in interview format, which is something I sometimes do when I'm inward-bound.) Later on, there is even poetry from Michael. Just… frustrating to read. To say the least of it.

And yet… the story slithered into my mind the same way Amber slipped into the Smart's lives, pushing in just the right ways and taking root without my noticing it was happening. For that reason, it's not an easy story to forget, even though I want to forget the voices that it's told in. There's something mysterious about it that makes you want to peel back the layers and reexamine everything to see what you've missed, to see if Amber gave anything away.

But then again, no, I probably won't read it again, because I don't want to slog through the thought of these people. It's enough to live in my own head without having to live in four of theirs as well.

Ali Smith has written several collections of short stories, including Free Love and Other Stories and Other Stories and Other Stories, as well as several novels including most recently Girl Meets Boy. The Accidental was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and the Man Booker Prize in 2005 (as was her earlier novel Hotel World) and won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005. Ali Smith's website cannot be found at alismith.org (though art by an American Ali Smith can be) and if she's got one, I've not found it.

Smith, Ali. The Accidental. Toronto: Penguin, 2006.
Finished: 03 June 2009
Rating: 3 of 5 recordings of sunrises
This was my 1st book in June and my 18th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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