I finished Ali Smith’s The Accidental the other night, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it; I’m not quite sure I like the ending, but that’s not a big deal with a book that is not plot driven. Mostly, I liked the book because of the writing, the way Smith captures the consciousness of each character.
I’ve always liked books that tell the same story from multiple perspectives because you can see how people react to the same situation in different ways or how they interpret a situation differently given their varied preoccupations and levels of knowledge. It shows how little solid information we have about anything and how our most prized opinions may be based on very incomplete knowledge. Smith tells her story from four different perspectives, each one appearing three different times: Eve, her second husband Michael, and two children from her first marriage, 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. They are on vacation in a rental house in Norfolk, and in walks Amber, a 30-something woman who wheedles her way into their lives. Each one thinks someone else in the family knows Amber, so no one seriously questions her presence. The story is about the havoc she wreaks as she develops different relationships with each family member and makes them confront who they are as individuals and as a family. There are short sections that are presumably from Amber’s perspective as well, although they don’t tell us much about who Amber is. She remains a mystery.
What works best is Smith’s use of language to capture the distinctive thought pattern of each character. The opening lines of Astrid’s story, for example, are interrupted by the words “Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski” in parentheses, as Astrid, in the midst of her thoughts on the dawn, also thinks about her own name and identity. She was born Astrid Berenski, but when her mother remarried, her name changed, and she is constantly thinking about what this change means. Eve’s first section is told in questions and answers, which is appropriate as she is a researcher and writer whose books are part biography, part fiction and who undergoes interviews herself. This format nicely captures her uncertainty and self-doubt. There is even a very odd section where’s Michael’s story transforms into a series of poems. Normally I would find this sort of thing irritating, but here it works: Michael is the sort who might start composing poems (bad ones) in his mind as a way of thinking about his life, and so it’s natural for the narrative to follow his mind there.
I found the characters almost equally compelling — which strikes me as hard to pull off when a writer is moving back and forth among four of them — and enjoyed being pulled into the emotional world of the Smart family. I read this book partly because I’ve heard very good things about Smith’s latest novel There But For The, and I wanted to read the Smith book on my shelves before moving on to the new one. I’m glad I did, and now I’m even more eagerly awaiting Smith’s latest.