No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

#72: The Accidental -- Ali Smith

This novel appeals to me on all sorts of levels. There's the structure: three parts (Beginning, Middle, End), each with four sections that begin and end mid-sentence (beginning with 'beginning' or 'middle' or 'end'), narrated by each of the four members of the Smart family. There is Magnus, aged 17, waiting to be found out after a joke email goes horribly wrong; Astrid, aged 12, addicted to watching life through the viewfinder of her camcorder; Eve, their mother, who makes her living writing imaginary biographies of real people (what would've happened if they hadn't died when they did), but is currently blocked; and Eve's second husband Michael, a university lecturer who is also waiting for his sins to find him out.

The Smart family are on holiday in Norfolk. It's summer 2003. And into their claustophobic web of family comes Amber -- Alhambra -- a young woman whose impact on the family is greater than her marginal, framing, irrelevant narrative would suggest.

It's 2003, the year the war got going: the year that Love Actually was showing in the cinemas; the year that Damilola was murdered. These events are all out of focus, all alluded to rather than foregrounded -- but all there. (Magnus's account of the plot of Love Actually is hilarious.) There's a very strong period sense to this novel. I wonder what it'll be like to read in ten years' time? To reread in ten years' time? Will it age well? Will it make any sense? Will the story, as opposed to the setting, age?

One mark of a good book is that it leaves you thinking; noticing new connections weeks after reading the last page and closing the novel. I'm still thinking about The Accidental, a month after finishing it.

It's a novel about cause and effect, and its absence: when causality breaks down, when mathematical certainties and logical proofs fail. When Chekhov's gun ("if there's a gun on stage in scene one, it must be used by the end of the play") isn't there for a reason. Or when the reasons aren't what they seem.

It's about responsibility and facing up to the consequences of one's actions. Each of the Smarts has to do that, in a different way.

Amber enters into a close, intimate (not necessarily sexual) relationship with each Smart. She tells each of them a different story. At one point it seems that she's finally told the truth: then, questioned, it turns out that she can't remember which story she's told. (Or is that another story that she's telling, to mess with their heads?) Everyone makes up a different story about Amber, too: Eve assumes that she's one of Michael's students, Magnus that she's a quasi-spiritual saviour. But Amber, when it comes to it, is a child of the silver screen:

But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She'd slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun...I used butter in Paris. I had a farm in Africa. I took off my clothes in the window of an apartment building and distracted the two police inspectors from watching for the madman on the roof who was trying to shoot the priest. I fell for an Italian. It was his moves on the dancefloor that did it. I knew what love meant. It meant never having to say you're sorry. It meant the man who drove the taxi would kill the presidential candidate, or the pimp...I had my legs bitten off by the shark. I stabbed the kidnapper, but so did everybody else, it wasn't just me, on the Orient Express.

What hooked me more than anything was the clarity of each voice. Magnus is a very credible, borderline-dysfunctional teenager: Astrid's sullen contempt and prickliness, and her devotion to her Art, rings a bell with my adolescent self. Eve's constant subterfuge and quiet desperation rings more of a bell now. And Michael's voice -- half-drunk and finding beauty and wonder in the blurring of the world, wholly intoxicated and penning sonnets in his Middle section -- feels so familiar that I'm sure I know him.

There are some aspects of the story that I'm still puzzling over. The Smarts' cleaner, Katrina (the butt of their middle-class jokes) seems to know Amber better than any of the rest of them do. Does that mean she knew her before? Or simply that, unhindered by the woven veil of her own stories about Amber, she's more receptive to the truth?

And who the hell is this Amber person anyway? Con artist or Zen guide? Thief or saviour? After all, she's the one the story's about, and yet I still know less about her than about any of the people she touches between Beginning and End.

Very highly recommended, even if some of the observations are too truthful not to sting.

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