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The Accidental

By Ali Smith

It was the French cinema’s agent provocateur, Jean Luc Godard, who quipped that ‘Stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.’ Well, in her highly entertaining new novel Ali Smith sticks to the traditional sequencing. She even tells us so, helpfully dividing her book into three sections, consecutively entitled ‘The Beginning’, ‘The Middle’ and ‘The End’. But, lest her instinct for formal experimentation go a begging, we actually get five beginnings, five middles and five ends, each written from the point of view of the five main characters. However, with the exception of the most mysterious and least delineated character, these are not first-person narratives, but are rendered in free indirect speech, a style pioneered by Joyce, in which the third-person narrative voice takes on the local colouration of the thought and speech patterns appropriate to the character that is being written about at any given time. Joyce sometimes flits from one to another of his fictional creations on the same page, or even the same paragraph, or, heaven help us, the same sentence. Ms Smith’s crew are certainly more well-behaved, patiently waiting their turns to have their respective beginnings, middles and ends.
A materially comfortable but suitably atomised middle-class London family of Mom, Dad, son and daughter are spending the summer of 2003 holidaying in a rented house in Norfolk, which turns out to be rather more substandard than the advert indicated when Eve, the Mom, chose it. Magnus, the son, and Astrid, the daughter, are not actually Dad-figure Michael’s kids, but Eve’s offspring from a previous marriage, which means they don’t treat him quite like they would a biological father, and are quietly curious about their real, but absent, progenitor.
‘It is substandard’ is, indeed, one of 12-year-old Astrid’s favourite phrases, along with ‘It is juvenile’. She also likes ‘i.e.’, which she amends to ‘id est’ when informed what the letters stand for in Latin. By the end, only six to eight months later, the registering of her intellectual precocity in linguistic terms means that ‘preternaturally’ is doing sterling service. So bored is she with the summer set-up that she has taken to filming each breaking dawn with her Sony digital camera.
Her brother Magnus, the nerdy but nice Upper Sixth Form 17-year-old, has done something terrible in school with a computer and a scanner, unpremeditatedly precipitating the suicide of a younger female pupil, and so is suspended. During his beginning, he is suicidally depressed with guilt, not talking or eating, and definitely not spouting the amazing scientific facts and speculations he was always wont to come out with.
Michael Smart is that clichéd personage, the philandering English Literature lecturer and repressed, but still aspiring, poet. Given his job description, he knows a lot about clichés, and his hackneyed status is acknowledged within the text. He’s about to have to face the consequences of his many dalliances with girl students, however, after one-too-many indiscretions. When one girl complains, they all do, retrospectively, although in Michael’s estimation they all seemed to enjoy it at the time. Trouble is, he’s not enjoying it as much as he used to, his latest conquest being a tad too perfunctory about what was expected of her.
Then there’s Eve, writer of the Genuine Articles series of novels, each of which imagines what the life of a real person, who died in the Second World War, would have been like, had they lived. But she’s in a pickle too, with a bad case of writer’s block. She lies on the floor of the summerhouse all day, frantically jumping up and making loud tapping noises on her computer-keyboard whenever she hears any family member approaching.
Into the doldrums of these dog days springs Amber, an anarchic but charismatic hippie-wastrel, with whose revivifying presence all of the family, in their own ways, falls in love. She turned up one day, claiming her car had broken down. Eve assumes she is one of Michael’s student mistresses; Michael thinks she has something to do with Eve’s writing; so she just stays, for several weeks, albeit electing to sleep in her car. She spins a trance-like web around them, with an (un)predictably disastrous dénouement.
All of this is conveyed with considerable skill, especially when Astrid and, more strikingly, Eve, start to adopt Amber’s mannerisms, and behave like her. Also noteworthy is Smith’s incorporation of realia, although Eve’s registering the progress of the Iraq War and Magnus’ astute film review of Love, Actually are probably just the author’s views stuck into the mouths or minds of her characters. Amber’s contributions amount to an extended essay on the hegemonic power of images in an image-saturated world, appropriate from a character who relies on manipulating her own projection of herself, to achieve her desired affect.




Ali Smith is a never less than intelligent, almost always original talent, with a finely-tuned contemporary sensibility. She has a deliciously subversive habit of presenting sharp-toothed, wolfish observations dressed in the cuddly, woolly clothing of a gambolling lamb. That said, her vision is becoming increasingly whimsical, growing ever more cheerily jolly-old-hockey-sticks to fully convince this long-time fan. While always undeniably an element of her work (readers of her wonderful first short story collection, Free Love, while revelling in the dexterous jauntiness, may have felt that the conceit in the title story, of a 16-year-old girl losing her lesbian virginity to an accommodating Amsterdam prostitute who doesn’t charge her because it’s her first time, is certainly not drawn from life), this tottering on the verge of tweeness has become more pronounced with each successive outing. The Accidental is breezier than her previous book, Hotel World, while it in turn lacked the bite of her debut, and best work to date, Like. Maybe she is just in a good place in her life right now, as they say. Maybe the most significant sentence between these covers is not part of the fiction at all, but the first line of the author bio: ‘Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962, and lives in Cambridge.’ In other words, why is she so preoccupied with the doings of these hapless, if harmless, Islingtonites? She has ranged further in the past, and doubtless will do so again.
But, despite these caveats, this is still well worth checking out. Coming full circle as it does, the ending is also a beginning, and gives hope for the future. Accidents, and The Accidental, will happen.

First published in The Sunday Independent













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