Rating 3 stars
Prior to The Accidental, I’d read four novels by Ali Smith, all of them belters. The Accidental is her third novel but her sixth published work. It appears on Boxall’s list of the 1001 books you should read before you die (I know, Boxall says you MUST read them, but I don’t think you should put that kind of pressure on people in case they end up resenting you and the books you love). I’m having a small moment of trying to read the female authors on the list, so I borrowed The Accidental from my local library.
As ever with Smith, the flow of the book is unusual. My favourites of hers that I’ve read are How to be Both, which tells a story in two parts that can be read either way around and that bleed into each other across a metaphysical temporal divide, and the endearing There But For The, in which Smith plays with mistaken and superficial identity in a tale of crisis and the human longing for meaning.
The Accidental starts with a conception that is both accidental and deliberate. The grown up child, Alhambra, tells the legend of her beginning in the café of a provincial cinema matter-of-factly. “Believe me,” she tells us. “Everything is meant.”
Meanwhile, 35 years later, 12-year-old Astrid is recording successive dawns on her dv camera in an attempt to understand when exactly the beginning of things is. Astrid is stuck for the summer in a rundown Norfolk village with her family, a place where ducks have their own roadsign marking the point where they cross the road. The Indian restaurant has been vandalised and Astrid has recorded nine dawns.
I liked Astrid. She’s the sort of wonky kid you find in films like Submarine and American Beauty. She has, as the saying goes, a rich inner life. She worries about not fitting in, but not so much that she modifies who she is in order to fit in.
Astrid has an absent father Adam, who appears as a faceless being in her dreams. She has the surname of her mother’s second husband Michael tagged onto the end of her first name now. This stepfather is a playwright and university lecturer. Astrid’s mother Eve is a writer. It’s fitting that, in connection with Astrid’s curiosity about beginnings, her parents share their names with the Biblical origin couple. Astrid’s brother Magnus is five years older than her. Michael has affairs with his students. Eve has writer’s block, causing the early holiday two months before school finishes for the summer. Magnus is somehow involved in a school prank that goes horribly wrong. Out of Magnus and Astrid, only Magnus can remember their father Adam.
So far, so conventionally dysfunctionally middle class family in a literary novel.
And then Amber arrives at the cottage and causes disruption.
Cinema is a theme that runs through this novel. Starting with Alhambra’s conception, through to Astrid’s filming of the minutiae of her life as evidence that she exists, via Magnus’s explanation of dramatic tension and scene setting in films, the unreliability of cinema as a medium is an allegory for the unreliability of personal perspective. There are précis of films as seen through the lens of individual characters’ perception scattered throughout the book. My favourite is Magnus’s reportage of watching Love, Actually and the way he nails the type of film that Richard Curtis makes, films that are misogyny dressed up as romance, where the funny is all about how fat women are or how neurotic or how old and undesirable or how young and irresistible, and about how men just can’t help behaving the way they do because women drive them to it.
Juvenility is another theme, from the true juvenility of Astrid and her brother, still forming as people, still trying to understand the world and their place in it, to the juvenility of Eve, Michael and Amber in their reluctance to take responsibility for their actions or for the true juveniles they have responsibility for. Smith examines similar things in The Accidental to those examined by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but Smith dissects with a blunt blade while Barbery peels and pares. Both ask who are we as people, how do we become, can we ever change, and do we want to?
Structurally, the book is split into The Beginning, Middle and The End, as all linear narratives are. Equally, it could have been split into the cinematic three act structure of set up, confrontation and resolution. Each act of the book is split into narrative perspectives from the key characters Astrid, Magnus, Michael and Eve. The Beginning introduces the characters. Middle reveals their take on the confrontation Amber brings with her. The End delivers resolution of a sort, with redemption for some of the characters and repetition for others. Alhambra provides the inter-act commentary, seemingly unconnected with the action but bringing the cinematic theme into focus.
It’s a clever book and very readable, but I found it lacked the warmth of the other books I’ve read by Smith. I didn’t really care about any of the characters. I felt like I was being held at arm’s length from them, as though they were ciphers used by Smith as tools rather than protagonists in the story. I was intellectually entertained rather than engrossed. It’s a play on the type of film that features a nice but dysfunctional middle class family whose peaceful but dysfunctional existence is disrupted by someone unconventional gate crashing their life and scraping away the veneer that tries to cover over their dysfunction. It’s a cliché in the sense that it uses well rehearsed tropes to tell a truth about relationships. It’s the same as and the opposite of a Richard Curtis film.