Prize-Winning British Novel Catches Catalyst in Action

O.K., so she borrowed the plot, such as it is, from a Pasolini movie— Teorema (1968), with an unforgettable Terence

O.K., so she borrowed the plot, such as it is, from a Pasolini movie— Teorema (1968), with an unforgettable Terence Stamp in the lead role—and the novel is almost too cleverly constructed, too pleased with its own tidy symmetries. But those are the only quibbles I’ve come up with, so I’ll just blurt it out: Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which two weeks ago won Britain’s Whitbread Novel of the Year award, is a delightful book, a satire that’s playful but not cuddly, tart but not bitter, thoughtful but not heavy.

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Soon after the publication in 2003 of her first novel, Hotel World, Ms. Smith, in an interview with fellow novelist Jeanette Winterson, asked rhetorically, “Do you come to art to be comforted, or do you come to art to be re-skinned?” Re-skinning sounds drastic—and, luckily, The Accidental bears no resemblance at all to The Silence of the Lambs. But it does invite the reader to watch the molting of a family of four—which in this case is not always a pretty sight.

Meet the Smarts: in order of appearance, Astrid, 12, at once confused and adamant, canny and clueless, and instantly engaging; Magnus, 17, a math whiz who has by accident done irreparable harm to a classmate and is regretting it fully, past angst and into anguish, as only a sensitive adolescent can; Michael, fortysomething, the self-satisfied stepfather, a professor of literature and serial seducer of his students; and Eve, 42, the mother, an historian who has had sudden success with a faddish series of counterfactual books. The Smarts are renting a house in Norfolk (the Hamptons of southeast England) for the summer; they’ve been there for just over a week when, one morning, the doorbell rings and their settled bourgeois world gets a vigorous shaking: “Sorry I’m late. I’m Amber. Car broke down.”

Who is Amber? Depends who you ask. Like the Terence Stamp character in Teorema, she quickly seduces the entire family, so that every opinion of her is colored by desire. To Astrid, Amber is “kind of a woman but more like a girl,” an older sister who seems to read her mind; to Magnus, she’s the “angel” who rescues him from torment and provides delirious sexual gratification; to Michael, she’s unobtainable and therefore irresistible; to Eve, who assumes at first that she’s one of Michael’s “students,” she’s a rude awakening.

All the Smarts agree that Amber is in her early 30’s, that she’s attractive and a little unkempt. And every reader will recognize that who she is matters far less than what she does: She’s a catalyst. Or she’s an “accidental,” a musical notation that changes the key; you could say that Amber changes everyone’s tune. Which means— because this is a novel very much of its time—that she alters the language the Smarts use to define themselves. She gives them new words, or shows them new meanings for old words. (Note that Ms. Smith has already shown us a new meaning for “accidental.”)

The novel is divided into 15 sections. Three of them, all very short, belong to Amber. She speaks to us directly, though what she’s saying (about her origins: conceived in a movie theater, suckled on popular culture—“I’m everything you ever dreamed”) is purposefully and disappointingly opaque. The Smarts, too, get three turns each in the spotlight (beginning, middle and end, which correspond roughly to pre-Amber, mid-Amber and post-Amber). Though we see the four family members from the outside, we also listen to their thinking—it’s close third person, beautifully executed.

Astrid is the gem: pushy, lonely, needy, bullied at school yet almost missing her tormentors now that she’s stuck in a “substandard” holiday house. “Nothing is going to happen here all substandard summer,” she mistakenly believes. She’s addicted to her video camera and to the abbreviation “i.e.”—until Amber weans her from both, violently in the case of the camera. (“Amber is ruthless with Astrid,” Magnus notes.) Amber clearly feels that Astrid needs to learn to see without looking through a lens and to process her perceptions without filtering them through a second iteration, i.e. a redundant verbal filter.

Here’s a peek at Astrid and her precarious egotism: She wonders whether Icarus would have met such a disastrous end “if the father had made the wings for a girl instead, who maybe would have known how to use them properly. But probably this would depend on how old the girl was, because if she was Astrid’s age it would be okay. But if she was any younger it would be dangerous, she would be too young, and if she was any older she would be worrying about people seeing up her skirt and the sun melting her eye make-up.” The catch here being that Astrid has no father to furnish her with wings.

Her brother Magnus is less enchanting, but his problem is a sturdy hook: He showed two classmates how to doctor a photo of a girl in his class, then how to circulate the pornographic result on the Internet—which caused the girl to commit suicide. No one knows of his involvement, which makes his hell very private—until Amber whisks him straight to teenage heaven: daily sex in the pews of the village church.

“I broke somebody, Magnus says to Amber that evening when they go to the church.

“So? She says. And?

“She says it kindly. She unbuckles him.”

The therapy isn’t solely sexual. Amber also leads him to a linguistic discovery that relates neatly back to his photomontage crime: He becomes “totally fascinated by a single word. The word is: and.” Just the word for a boy who sees himself and his family as “broken”—“broken pieces which won’t go together … like they all come from different jigsaws.”

The very literary philanderer Michael Smart is a magnet for Ms. Smith’s literary wit. He’s a cliché and he knows it, which leads him to bloviate on the nature of cliché. Ignored and insulted by Amber, he becomes another kind of cliché: the spurned lover. Clever Ms. Smith constructs for him a special and devilishly apt torture: She turns him into a sonnet sequence—a playful pastiche, of course. She then devises a more human purgatory by stripping him of every role but one: stepfather.

His wife, Eve, is the only adult in the family, and she remains somewhat mysterious—deep, I’m tempted to say—particularly in her equivocal relationship with the equivocal Amber, who gives her new and frightening powers of vision: “as if the world beyond her eyes had slowed its pace especially to reveal the spaces between what she usually saw and the way things were tacked temporarily together with that thin thread across these spaces.”

I started with the quibbles, but that’s not how the reader experiences The Accidental. A few pages with Astrid and you know that Ali Smith is in complete control of her material—and you begin to remember how much fun it is to put yourself in the hands of a skilled, majestically confident writer. Because you trust Ms. Smith, you do that blessed thing: You suspend disbelief, casually taking Amber for granted and swallowing the story whole—the sweet, the sad, the scary, the funny, even the chewy patches of concentrated cleverness. The aftertaste is mystery (Amber and Eve). And what does mystery taste like? It’s hard to describe, really, but you’ll like it.

Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer.

Prize-Winning British Novel Catches Catalyst in Action