Barefoot, thirty-something Amber shows up at the door of a Norfolk cottage that the Smarts are renting for the summer, insinuating herself into their family. Dazzled by her seeming exoticism, the Smarts begin to examine the accidents of their lives under the searing lens of Amber's perceptions. When the mother Eve finally banishes her from the cottage, Amber disappears from their sight, but not--as they find when they return home to London--from their profoundly altered lives. Fearlessly intelligent, disarmingly playful, "The accidental" is a Joycean tour-de-force of literary improvisation that explores the nature of truth, the role of chance, and the transformative power of storytelling.
It's all very strange, because she's not particularly likeable. You'd think one of the parents would kick her out, but every member of the family is so locked inside their own head that no one understands the effect she's having on them collectively. As Amber inserts herself into the family, she shares remarkably little about herself, and yet manages to get everyone else to let their guard down. Each family member has the chance to tell their version of the story, taking turns as narrator, which enables the reader to get just as deep into each person's psyche as Amber does. Ali Smith used very different writing styles and techniques for each character, underscoring the differences between family members. On the other hand, Amber's chapters are decidedly sparse, so as readers our understanding of her is just as limited as the family's.
I was initially intrigued by Smith's quirky writing, but eventually tired of it. The story seemed about equal parts positive and creepy. Only when the family returns to London does the full impact of Amber's visit become clear, and the whole thing struck me as quite creepy indeed. And while this book gave me some interesting thoughts to ponder, I was left wishing some of the family relationships and related themes were further developed.
Ali Smith traces Amber’s impact on each of her main characters in turn. And since they each lead such oppressively interior lives, closed off from the light of understanding or shared concern, Amber can be substantially different for each of them. And for each of them, she is just what they need, more or less. She rescues Magnus from his morbid guilty self-concern which risks leading him down the same path as his former classmate. She expands Astrid’s view outward from the narrowing lens of her dv camera into a world of humour and joy. She disdains Michael’s advances but gives him the opportunity to revel in a bit of unrequited lust, for a change. And for Eve? She knocks her on her head and challenges her inauthentic existence.
Amber’s interactions go through three iterations: beginning, middle, and end. These twelve studies are bracketed by a possible origin story for Amber in a startling procreation exercise at the Alhambra Picture Palace. But what is the connection between the flickering images on the screen, the fictive reality of Eve’s own origins, and the transformative power of accident?
Fascinating to read, even if I’m not entirely certain that it succeeds as a whole. But certainly recommended.
I enjoyed the different points of view, but at times it was difficult to understand the plotline through the characters’ thoughts. I found this book hard to put down at times, but I could not really tell you why. At times I became engulfed in a character’s thoughts, but at other times found it challenging to keep reading. I was disappointed in the ending and thought that the story needed some closure. This book overall was nothing special. It was entertaining, but it left me underwhelmed and slightly confused.
The four Smart family members take turns narrating a chapter. My favorite chapters were told by Astrid, a young girl who likes to videotape everything. With a director’s eye and a stream of consciousness that James Joyce would appreciate, Astrid’s perspective matched her age: big ideas, rambling thoughts and a curiosity about life. Also interesting was her brother’s narrative: Magnus was depressed about the suicide of a fellow classmate and felt at blame for the girl’s death. Smith’s strength is not character development – you never get a full picture of each character – but the snippets she showed of the kids were insightful and captivating.
Smith’s writing style takes a while to get used to. You’re dropped into the middle of each character’s thoughts, and you might need several chapters (as I did) to get into the writing style. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite way of storytelling, and I felt it put up barriers around the characters and their stories. Additionally, the ending was disappointing, and after trudging through this book, I was hoping for something a little more gratifying.
It’s hard to recommend The Accidental because it was a “meh” book for me. I encourage future readers to look at other reviews before deciding on this book. I think it’s a book you either like or don’t; I hate to say that I am in the latter group.
This is an intelligent, carefully structured novel that is both funny and illuminating. A chance trip to watch the movie Love Actually leads Magnus, the confused young son of the family to ruminate on Plato's ideas about Belief and Illusion. Ali Smith is able to incorporate myth and philosophy into her wry look at ordinary modern life in a way that produces an entirely fresh way of seeing. From the minute details of life to the war in Iraq playing in the background, the methods we use to understand things are exposed and questioned. Whether seeing reality through the filter of Astrid's camera lens or the mathematical equations of Magnus, the way we view the world is scrupulously examined. But the characters have a sense that truth is still hidden from them leading them to use new tools to examine it. Ali Smith bravely experiments with language and the form of the novel to re-view life. If her technique is viewed by some as placing literary panache over essential meaning then Smith seems to answer this through her character the novelist Eve who responds, "It's not a gimmick. Every question has an answer." Smith cleverly constructs different paths to bring us to new answers.
The book is dreamy, disjointed and in parts, preposterous.
I know I'm in a minority on this one; I have read another Ali Smith "Hotel World" and felt the same way so perhaps it's just me.
The action (if you can call it that) happens when an unknown woman named Amber happens into their household and stays because both Eve and Michael think she must have something to do with the other one, but everyone is too polite to ask at first. By the time they realize it, Amber has ingratiated herself into the family and stays until they begin to feel that she's not charmingly blunt but instead relentlessly cruel. The interactions between Astrid and Amber were the most believable and affecting. Amber's pseudo-showdown with Eve would have been something if Eve had any more texture to her than damp cardboard. Some odd stylistic choices and segues distracted from the storytelling (Michael tells a whole chapter in verse - I skimmed it; another entire chapter is made up of a sort of stream-of-consciousness mashup of movie plots - I skipped it).
Summary: I enjoyed about half of it, was disinterested in about a quarter of it, and completely hated about a quarter of it.
One quote from the book that caught my eye: "There are things that can't be said because it is hard to have to know them. There are things you can't get away from after you know them."
The story is told through each of the four members of the Smart family - mom Eve, dad Michael, older brother Magnus, younger sister Astrid. The best chapters were definitely the ones told by the kids. Magnus' teen angst and depression over thinking he caused the suicide of a classmate and Astrid's preteen randomness of thought were compelling and amusing, respectfully. The chapters told by the parents were so much middle aged rambling. The pieces of the story from Amber, the young woman who crashes the family's summer home, were odd.
Amber shows up at the summer house and just walks in when the door is opened to her saying her car is broken down just down the road. Michael assumes she is there for Eve because she acts like she belongs. Eve assumes Michael invited her when she meets her later. Neither confirms with the other, so Amber stays, hangs out with the kids separately, taking them on a series of secret adventures which the parents would have freaked over if they knew about them. The parents are uncomfortable with her but neither says anything until Eve throws her out. The novel is about how Amber affects each member of the family differently and the aftermath of her being in their lives for the summer.
Not sure if I recommend the book, but I can't not recommend it, either. I guess it's one of those things you have to read for yourself and decide.
Amber gradually worms her way into each family member's life. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member, and we see only their perceptions of Amber as she doesn't have a voice. It soon transpires that Amber is a little unorthodox, and the book is about how Eve, Michael, Astrid and Magnus deal with this.
This book is perfectly well-written, and I enjoyed Astrid and Magnus's chapters (Eve and Michael aren't the most sympathetic characters you'll ever come across) but the ending left me feeling quite ambivalent about the whole story. It didn't seem like it had much to say really, and I certainly wasn't gripped by any of the plotting, such as it was. I wondered if I had missed the point actually, given that I didn't get the Alhambra thread one little bit, but maybe it just wasn't my kind of story. There are plenty more interesting books to read than this I think.
The stream-of-consciousness writing was a bit much to take in places; I found the simpler passages and paragraphs much more affecting than the slightly pretentious areas of writing, which I will admit to skipping rather than get irritated out of the story, which was otherwise engrossing and compelling… Astrid is a strikingly portrayed girl on the cusp-of-teenage-hood, her brother Magnus is shockingly sad, their stepfather Michael oddly stereotypical among them, and their mother, Eve, somehow the one who – of all of them - must be woken or changed. Amber (or Alhambra, named for the cinema where she was conceived) is an enigma, but her impact is more important than the details of her life.
I didn’t come away from this novel with a new favourite, but it did make me think for a while.
Unfortunately, I found the ending weak and disappointing. The characters that had seemed so vivid and realistic in the start had certainly developed through the story but didn't seem to have ended up in any definite place by the end of the novel. Too many loose ends were left untied and the half-explanation of Amber's motives were unsatisfying, especially after the few tantalising glimpses we get of her past (although perhaps no explanation at all would've better suited the haunting presence she has throughout the novel).
Despite this, the innovative style of this novel definitely makes it a must read.