The title of Ali Smith’s The Accidental lets us in on what she’s doing. The plot is not a new one: a stranger breaks in on a dysfunctional family, works her mysterious magic, and leaves them completely different. You’ll have seen this in dozens of variations, innocuous and not-so, from Mary Poppins to Rebecca. The Accidental, however, is a lovely, jazzy, postmodern twist on the old story, and it leaves the reader wondering in a different key than we started in.
At the beginning of the story, the Smart family are on holiday in unfashionable Norfolk. Each member of the family is divided from the others by their secrets. Eve, the mother, has vicious writer’s block, and can’t fathom writing any more of the heavily-marketed “autobiotruefictinterviews” that have brought her 15 minutes of fame. Michael, the English-lit professor stepfather, has been screwing his undergraduate students in order to feel powerful and interesting, and he’s so self-congratulatory that he has no attention to give to the rest of his family. Magnus, the 17-year-old, took part in a prank during the school year that resulted in a classmate’s suicide, and he can’t stop thinking about it: “They took her head. They fixed it on the other body. Then they sent it round everybody’s e-mail. Then she killed herself.” His world has become literally gray and dark, but no one notices his despair. Astrid, the 12-year-old, has been suffering from bullying at school, obsesses about the way things begin and end (dawn, death, food, waste) and sees everything through the eye of her expensive camera.
Then Amber arrives, just in time to interrupt Magnus as he’s trying to hang himself in the bathroom. (“I found him trying to hang himself in the bathroom,” she says, and everyone around the dinner table laughs without the faintest shred of belief.) Without telling a single lie, Amber manages to convince everyone in the Smart family that she’s there for some reason other than the true one. (And what is the true one? We don’t know either.) Eve thinks she’s another one of Michael’s undergraduates; Michael thinks she’s something to do with Eve’s writing.
What happens next is a meditation on mediation. Amber takes Astrid’s omnipresent camera and throws it in the river, then teaches her how to be present to arbitrary authority (including random bullies) and how to see her life through her own eyes. She seduces Magnus, forcing him to witness the reality of sex and female desire through a different lens than that of pornography and death. She ignores the besotted Michael outright, pushing him into a dark and fractured poetic gift that is lonelier, but far more real and human, than the clichéd phrases he’d been using with his undergraduates. She never says one word that isn’t the unmixed, unmediated truth, and almost no one ever believes her.
And Eve? Amber accuses Eve of being a phony, a fake. She demands more from her than the pre-manufactured stories (the autobiotruefictinterviews, really) that she’s been telling of her own life: lost loves, meet cutes, having babies. Amber shakes her by the shoulders, sharply; she blows smoke; she kisses her hard on the mouth, trying to break through. Eve resists, and resists, and resists. Can she resist the jangling of this accidental chord forever, this new way of looking at the world?
This book isn’t perfect — there are some vague interludes about who Amber “really” is, to do with cinema and the persistence of vision, that never quite gel. But for the most part, this is a wonderful, lustrous novel about the experiences that connect us and those that separate us. It says that there are ways we can look at the world that destroy, and those that can give life, and that we have the power to choose. This may be an old story, but it’s still very good news.