Monday, 18 January 2010

Review: 'The Accidental' by Ali Smith

As a former musician – I use the word ‘former’ advisedly, every time I get near a piano nowadays, four pairs of hands are at the ready to “help” with the notes – the word ‘accidental’ conjures musical connotations. An accidental involves the introduction of a sharp, or a flat, or a natural note, which essentially breaks the rules of the key signature; it results in a note that does not belong to the scale of the piece. This is how I picture Amber, Ali Smith’s mysterious visitor who turns the lives of a family on holiday in Norfolk upside down. Amber does not belong and she alters the whole scale of the family.

Amber’s arrival at the family’s holiday home requires a slight suspension of disbelief – I can’t imagine living an existence so fractured that I wouldn’t think to check with Neil if there was a visitor coming - however, I was more than happy to suspend my disbelief, in fact I would have expelled it entirely just to continue reading Smith’s fabulous prose. The ultimate consequences of Amber’s visit also raise some doubts regarding practicalities and feasibility, however the symbolism of Amber’s act (can’t do spoilers, so this is very vague) is striking and, it turns out, just what the family needs.
The novel is told in the third person, but with masterful use of free indirect discourse. Smith moves from 12 year old Astrid, to 17 year old Magnus, to Eve the mother and to Michael, step-father, serial adulterer and university lecturer. Each voice is so distinct and well crafted that Smith doesn’t have to announce who is speaking as the chapters change: you know immediately. Michael was by far my favourite character. He was pompous, pretentious and self-centred. Part of the enjoyment of the novel was waiting for him to get caught with his trousers down (metaphorically, as it happened). His poetry was delightfully dramatic and initially atrocious, although it improved as his character became more sympathetic and by the end of the novel I felt some (small) degree of empathy for him.

The ending of the book took me rather by surprise. Yet as I mulled it over in my head, I realised that there was really no other possible ending. While the ending is essentially open, or at least the beginning of something new, the characters are not unchanged. Each of the family members learns something from the enigmatic Amber. Eve in particular learns more than we might initially think, and the ending is hopeful, if not resolved, which is exactly how I like my endings to be.

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