I was born in the year of the supersonic, the era of the multi-storey multivitamin multitonic, the highrise time of men with the technology and women who could be bionic, when jump jets were Harrier, when QE2 was Cunard,when thirty-eight feet tall the Princess Margaret stood stately in her hoverpad, the annee erotique was only thirty aircushioned minutes away and everything went at twice the speed of sound. I opened my eyes. It was all in colour. It didn’t look like Kansas anymore. The students were on the barricades, the mode was maxi, the Beatles were transcendental. It was Britain. It was great.
Before writing The Accidental, Ali Smith wrote Hotel World, shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize, and several short story collections. Her work is absolutely original, with a trademark quirky style, with whole passages that seem to have been bound into the wrong book and occasional historical asides completely outside the narrative line. Don’t be fooled; with Smith, every word has a purpose.
Amber is the catalyst who makes the novel happen. She appears on the doorstep of the Smart’s rented summer cottage in Norfolk, England, barefoot and unexpected. Eve Smart, a third-rate author suffering writer’s block, believes that she is a friend of her husband’s. Michael is a womanizing University professor, but he doesn’t usually drag his quarry home. He thinks that she must be a friend of Eve’s. Everyone is politely confused and Amber is invited to dinner. She is a consummate liar and manipulator who manages to seduce everyone in the family in some significant way.
Magnus, Eve’s 17-year-old son from a former marriage and Astrid, her 12-year-old daughter, are easy prey. Magnus is in despair. He played a prank on a classmate and it went horribly wrong when she killed herself because of the humiliation it caused. He cannot shake the guilt and is about to hang himself from the shower rod when Amber walks into the bathroom, the perfect deus ex machina. She bathes him and takes him back downstairs, announcing that she found him trying to kill himself. Everyone titters. Could it be possible? This is a recurring question as Amber’s behavior becomes more and more outrageous. Is this really happening, or is it some family-wide delusion? To add to the mystery, there is a Rashomon-like character to the story in that the same events are recalled by the Smarts through their own filters.
This life force who is Amber is finally thwarted when Eve, after a disturbing event, compels her to leave. The family is left to re-evaluate who they are post-Amber and to decide how to live with the changes she has brought about in them through this “accidental” encounter. This is a completely engrossing novel that raises as many questions as it answers. —Valerie Ryan