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Ali Smith: The Accidental

I have had occasion to mention Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s film Teorema (Theorem) before, as regards its plot, namely the idea of a stranger arriving into a family or group and completely disrupting it. There are three books on this site with this theme: Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Folly, Hilary Mantel‘s Fludd and Simone de Beauvoir‘s L’invitée (She Came to Stay). And here is the fourth.

The family is the Smart family. Eva is married to Michael and she has two children from a previous marriage to Adam Berenski, Magnus, aged seventeen, and Astrid aged twelve. Eva is a successful writer. She has come up with the idea of taking real but not famous people who died before their time (often in war) and writing their stories as if they had lived. The books, called Genuine Articles, have been very successful and the public and the publisher are clamouring for more, though one newspaper said they are a prime example of our shameful attraction to anything that lets us feel both fake-guilty and morally justified. Unfortunately, she now has writer’s block and seems to spend the day asleep on the floor of her room, which means she lies awake at night.

Michael is a university lecturer in English literature and has regular affairs with his female students. Eva seems to be aware of this.

Magnus is something of a geek. One boy at his school found the school office unlocked and the filing cabinet open. He stole a photo of a girl at the school to whom he was sexually attracted. He showed it to Magnus and another boy and, between them, they Photoshopped the photo, placing her head on the body of a woman from a pornographic magazine and then sent it out to all the sixth form, under a fake email as though it came from Michael Jackson. The girl was devastated and killed herself. Magnus now feels very remorseful and spends much of the day in bed, only coming downstairs to collect his meals, which he takes up to his room.

If there is a heroine, it is Astrid. She has a new video camera and gets up early every morning to film the dawn. She also films other things, such as the vandalised Indian restaurant and the cleaning lady. She has also been subjected to bullying at school and her mobile phone has been stolen by older girls. She dare not tell her parents, even though they are still paying for the contract.

The family is staying in a rented cottage in Norfolk for the summer. Eva is not happy, as she feels the cottage is of a poor standard. Michael is not happy, not just because he has to commute to London for his job (and for his sex), but also because people just do not go to Norfolk any more, they go to Suffolk. Astrid is not happy, as there is nothing to do in the village.

One morning, Astrid notices a woman apparently asleep on the sofa. The woman had knocked at the door and Michael had answered. She apologised for being late and said that her car had broken down. Michael invites her in and, not surprisingly, finds that he is attracted to her. He assumes that she has come to interview Eva. When Eva first meets her, she assumes that she is one of Michael’s students. When he denies this, she does not believe him.

When Michael checks her car, he finds nothing wrong with it. However, the woman, whose name is Amber MacDonald, stays for lunch and stays for dinner. Eva offers her bed but she prefers to sleep in her car. She continues to stay.

She has an immediate effect, as she gets Magnus to come down for dinner and spend the entire meal with the family. She spends time with Astrid while she films but then, while they are crossing a bridge over a road, throws the camera down into the road.

The rest of the book, as well as filling the back story, tells how Amber’s presence massively influenced and changed the four family members. She changes them while she is there and, more particularly, after she leaves, they all undergo major changes, partly brought on by circumstances but mainly by character changes which, we must assume, were occasioned by Amber and her presence.

Not all of the changes are good. Indeed, Amber certainly does things that help the family but others are positively harmful. In some cases, we are left wondering whether good will come out of the changes or whether the individual is set on a course that may or may not be positive. Ali Smith is too good a writer to make simplistic judgements, even if we might do so.

The basic plot is reasonably straightforward, even if not always, by any means, predictable. However, there are inevitable detours on the road, whether it is, at one point, her telling the story in snippets of film plots or Amber’s at times outrageous behaviour. Amber is ruthless with Astrid. She is unbelievably rude to Michael. As if I give a monkey’s fuck about what you think about books. She is bored silly by his mother, makes no attempt to hide it. Uh-huh. So: Astrid is besotted. Michael looks more determined every time. His mother gets keener to dredge up ‘interesting’ things to say.

The story is told in the third person but with the focus changing from character to character. All the four characters get their turn (or, rather, multiple turns) and all four have things to reveal and things to hide and all four change during the course of the book.

As mentioned, at the beginning, the idea is not particularly original but Smith carries it off very well, primarily because both Amber and her effect on the family are generally unpredictable. Once again, this is a book that confirms Ali Smith as a major writer.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Hamish Hamilton