The Accidental by Ali Smith

Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous.

-John Berger (quoted at the beginning of The Accidental)

Another book I picked up off the bookshelf in my apartment, The Accidental is probably the best novel I have read this year. I absolutely fell in love with this book from the very first page. I had one of those moments – and I’m sure all the bibliophiles out there will know what I mean – where I slipped so easily into the world of the story. I couldn’t wait to get back to it, and as soon as I finished I started reading it again straight away.

The Accidental follows the summer holiday in Norfolk of a UK family of four. Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different family member: Astrid, the almost thirteen-year-old, Magnus, the seventeen-year-old, Eve, their forty-two-year-old mother, and Michael, Eve’s husband and the kids’ stepfather. The book is divided into three sections titled “The Beginning”, “Middle”, and “The End”, and each section has five chapters, four from the perspective of the family. The fifth chapter is from an undefined voice, most likely Amber’s, the mysterious girl/woman who turns up at the holiday house and becomes part of the family. This voice is in first-person, while all the other chapters are in third-person-limited. The fifth voice also has a much more general, historical quality. It is at once first-person and omniscient, seeing and remembering everything. It is much broader and more dreamlike than the other four voices.

What I love most about The Accidental (and this has no doubt been said before, possibly on the back of the book) is its unique voice. Not just Smith’s own particular style of writing, but the way she creates such distinctive and interesting voices for each character. Astrid is my favourite. I love the way her thoughts move – she has the brilliant curiosity and short attention span of a young girl. The way her thoughts and speech are peppered with abbreviations like ‘i.e.’ and her fascination with film and looking make her instantly recognisable. From Astrid:

But it is what your eyes do. They look at people who are strangers to see if they aren’t strangers.

Similarly, her older brother Magnus thinks in terms of math and equations, often throwing equal signs, theorems and puzzles into his musings. From Magnus:

If Amber is a piece of broken-up jigsaw too, Magnus thinks, then she is several pieces of blue sky still joined up. Maybe she is a whole surviving connected sky.

Michael is a literature professor, and his chapters are full of literary allusions – similes, metaphors, and references to cliché. One of his chapters comes entirely in sonnet form. To be honest, this was my least favourite chapter – the one that felt the most contrived (although even this in a way is in keeping with Michael’s character). However, there were still many lines that I liked:

He was a very ordinary bloke.

He turned from sand to glass and then he broke.

And:

Like he was a dictionary and she was a word he hadn’t known was in him.

Throughout the novel Eve is struggling to write the latest in a series of books based on fictional interviews with people who were killed in the Second World War. Sometimes in her own head she interviews herself, and often her conversations with other characters (mostly Michael) are written as straight dialogue. I like the way Eve refers to her age, which she often does when remembering the past: Eve (42) speaks to Eve (15). She feels time – an important theme of the novel – heavily.

In general, The Accidental has a stream of consciousness style that reminds me strongly of Virginia Woolf. In fact, the whole novel is quite Woolf-ian: a family in a summerhouse, not a lot of action or dialogue but a huge amount of internal turmoil and contemplation. It is almost a modern version of To the Lighthouse, a novel built on small, interior moments. From Astrid:

The tops of the trees shift all round them a moment before they feel the actual breeze that shifted the leaves above them that moment ago.

From Magnus:

It is pretending to be an authentic old latch. The door is pretending to be an authentic old door. Maybe everything there is isn’t authentic anymore. Maybe everything there is is a kind of pretending.

And from Michael, after meeting Amber:

Spoons! There was a world, with spoons in it, plates, cups, glasses.

Like Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style, chapters in The Accidental often begin mid-thought, and sentences are sometimes interrupted by another train of thinking. The idea of time, a theme that runs strongly throughout The Accidental, is also important in To the Lighthouse. In the middle of Woolf’s novel there is an entire section where the passing of the years is almost a character itself, and where the house seems to speak for the absent people. In The Accidental the fifth voice seems to be speaking from history, or perhaps more specifically from an old cinema called Alhambra that has seen time pass through it in much the same way the house has in To the Lighthouse.

The Accidental is rich with thematic connections. Time and history feature prominently, as does the ability of film and photography, perhaps even writing, to capture time. Astrid is obsessed with her camera, Eve with writing fictional interviews, Michael with poetry, Magnus with math. In a way all of these things are about trying to understand time, and the recording of it. There is the interesting idea that in a film “everything is meant” and that perhaps in life the same is true. The narrative itself moves back and forth in time as characters remember things, get distracted and later come back to them again. Amber is the connecting thread. She is time, or even fate, perhaps. She is the one that joins all the characters together, the one they all fall in love with, in their own separate ways (again, reminiscent of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse):

… Amber at the centre of it like an axis is what is holding them all together …

Really perhaps this is a novel about how we see the world through our own separate lenses; about the way we create our own personal films, where everything matters. As John Berger says in the quote that opens the novel, there is a lack of narratives that match up with our own full and complicated experiences. We have to create our own stories, and in doing so we search out new languages, and alternative histories (like the books Eve writes) to help us make sense of the world. There is something very liberating about the idea that we are free to create ourselves. However, it is also frightening, as we take on the complete responsibility for deciding who we are.

Ali Smith was born in Scotland in 1962. She is the author of four short story collections and five novels, including The Accidental. Her latest novel, There But For The, was noted in The Guardian as one of the best books of 2011.

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