on 23 October 2014
Initially I stopped reading this book about 3 chapters in but then after a couple of weeks I was suffering from bad insomnia and thought it might help me sleep. It did. By about halfway through I'd decided I wanted to review it so I knew I needed to finish it, as I don't believe it is fair to review a book if you haven't finished it!
The chapters alternate, each chapter being voiced by either the mother, step father, the daughter or the son. There are also two chapters voiced by Amber the interloper. Her chapters are quite frankly not worth reading, they add nothing to the story and tell you nothing about her character other than she quite possibly may be a schizophrenic.
For some reason which I am sure the publisher and droves of 'serious reviewers' must understand and believe to be very clever, the author believed herself to be above the rules of English grammar and so you have to muddle through with no speech marks; which frankly is just really tiring on the eyes and somewhat frustrating, also some chapters start mid-sentence.
Apart from this, the story, which could be an interesting depiction of a nuclear family, goes nowhere. It literally just ends. Weird things happen, with no reason. Nothing is concluded. As for all the rave reviews and prize winning nominations? I can only presume, that like the emperor with no clothes, there are a lot of pretentious 'literary' types feeling very 'smart', while the rest of us laugh at them for being sucked in!
on 29 October 2006
I don't write that many Amazon reviews but given some of the negative ones for this book, I had to. Personally, I thought the book was absolutely brilliant and, as others have said, the change in narrative tone depends on who's doing the narrating. As for Michael, he was a fantastic comic figure, especially in his middle section, the one written in verse. I take my hat off to Ali Smith for being able to move between prose and poerty in that way, but for anyone who doesn't like poetry, you can read it just as prose. It works that way, too.
The reason for four rather than five stars is the slightly disappointing ending. Although we don't really need to know who Amber really is, the three passages about her do suggest there are clues to her identity and it would have been nice to know what that identity was. And while I had no problem with Eve in the States, the suggestion that she might be going to retsart the whole cycle was a little silly: the point about Amber was that she was totally unique.
This is clearly one of those novels, though, that people either love or hate and to be honest I can't imagine haiting it. It's frequently called pretentious, too, which I didn't think it was at all (and I loathe McEwan et al for their pretension.) I hope to read a good deal more of her work.
Ali Smith's The Accidental is bold, playful, exuberant, and with its opening chapter about the very accident of conception itself - one egg, the possibility offered by a myriad spermatozoa, bursting vibrantly and provocatively into introducing the protagonist from - where, heaven?, hell? the here and now? - it reminded me not a little of Kate Atkinson's first novel, Behind The Scenes At The Museum.
The title of Smith's book is of course mocking and, `Yeah, Right!' because the whole tenor of the book decries `the accident'. The mysterious agent-provocateur, Amber/Alhambra, whose conception, in the café of an Alhambra cinema is detailed at the start, will enter the lives of a fairly ordinary family, in the guise of a saviour to some, and as some kind of devastating Kali figure to others, whose trail of destruction forces changes and awakening on them. Everything they are, everything that happens, came from their natures and their choices, not from `accident'
But enough of this elusive waffle, what is the outline of this book
A family of 4, Michael, University lecturer in the English Department, serial philanderer. His wife, Eve, a successful genre writer in a kind of `invented biography' field, taking the lives of real people who died early and inventing longer lives for them. Eve's children: Magnus, 17, highly intelligent, falling dangerously apart, after his unwitting but still culpable involvement in a piece of Facebook flamery causes a classmate to kill herself. And finally, lastly, but absolutely not leastly,12 year old Astrid. The 4 - the Smart family (here, as so often Smith is making all sorts of pointed comments, as the family, and certainly the adults, are anything but) are on a summer vac holiday in Norfolk, and pretty disastrous it is turning out to be.
Smith writes events from the point of view of each family member - not as first person narration but as seen from the point of view of the omniscient narrator - it is only Amber, the instigator of changes, who gets first person narration.
Amber appears unexpectedly at the holiday cottage, and both Eve and Michael are convinced she has been invited by the other (their marriage is not altogether going swimmingly as shown by the fact that Eve thinks Amber must be one of Michael's current student seductions, and Michael she is some kind of `eighties feministy still-political women' for whom Eve is some kind of icon.
On her first night with the family she rescues Magnus from a suicide attempt, blazes Astrid out of the sulking disaffected `whatever' she is heading towards, is violently fallen in love with by Michael, and becomes some kind of confessional for Eve. Her role, for each of the four, is ultimately healing, though for the adults, her healing involves a ruthless stripping away of their masks, and is both immediately, and ultimately painful.
But what makes Smith's book challenging, entrancing, and, also it must be said, at times extremely irritating, are the games she plays, with form, structure, style, reference. For example, one of the Michael sections consists of a series of sonnets as Amber releases the writer from the cynical and rather tired analyser of literature. Amber's own sections, true to her movie inspired conception, runs through a dizzying movie iconic moments, cliché moments from movies, explanation of our times.
The Smart family's individual voices are not drawn equally successfully. Eve, for me, is the character who engages the least, and young Astrid is the absolute stand-out,
"Astrid is taping dawns. There is nothing else to do here. The village is a dump. Post Office, vandalised Indian restaurant, chip shop little shop place that's never open, place for ducks to cross the road. Ducks actually have their own roadsign! There is a sofa warehouse called Sofa So Good. It is dismal. There is a church. The church has its own roadsign too. Nothing happens here except a church and some ducks, and this house is an ultimate dump. It is substandard. Nothing is going to happen here all substandard summer."
I have some reservations about the book once the summer was over, and the unravelling, the remaking, the inventiveness moved beyond the family's return to London and beyond, possibly because the final character journey which Smith explores, is that of Eve, who, for me, was the character who had worked less well, and who I found the least credible.
But I am certainly minded to explore more of Smith's writing. She is an unusual voice, one with energy, verve, and fierce intelligence. Her crackling intellect and her ability to connect together all sorts of disparate threads, to explore the form of the novel, but not in a dry and dusty manner, reminds me not a little of Scarlett Thomas.
on 23 August 2006
This is the only time I have read a new novel, then immediately turned back to the first page and read it again, to pick up the clues and nuances missed first time, and to review the beginning of the story in the light of the outcome. It's compelling and easy to read, and the author's love affair with language is just as fresh and engaging the second time round.
As in a Greek tragedy, much of the action takes place offstage, and we encounter the four members of the Smart family each reeling and struggling to cope, in isolation, with their own personal disaster. The deus ex machina is Amber/Alhambra who interacts with each in the way he or she needs to come to a new understanding of him/herself.
Ali Smith's prose is compressed and innovative, echoing the rhythms of natural speech in a stream of consciousness that is neither pretentious nor inaccessible.
Her love of language, culture and people, and her fascination with the unregarded surface of everyday life, shine from every page.
A delight to read and a worthy winner.