Arresting and wonderful, The Accidental pans in on the Norfolk holiday home of the Smart family one hot summer. There, a beguiling stranger called Amber appears at the door bearing all sorts of unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.
A novel about the ways that seemingly chance encounters irrevocably transform our understanding of ourselves, The Accidental explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling.
So, The Accidental by Ali Smith. This was a funny one – not necessarily in a good way.
I picked it up in a second hand bookshop while I was on holiday, recalling how much I loved There but for the (a story about a man who locks himself in a room inside someone else’s house during a terrible dinner party and doesn’t come out for months) ready for another whimsical, and, if the blurb was anything to go by, uplifting ride.
That is not what I got.
The Accidental is a book split into three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end. Each part is narrated in close third person in Smith’s typical stream-of-consciousness style by the Smart-Berenski family members; Eve, the mother and writer with a serious lack of inspiration; Michael, her cheating university professor husband; Magnus, Eve’s teenaged son; and Astrid, Eve’s 12-year-old daughter and by far the highlight of this book.
They are, as the blurb indicates, on holiday for the summer in Norfolk, ostensibly so Eve can get some writing done (she isn’t writing so much as napping in her ‘writing shed’ for eight hours before coming inside for dinner) and the family can have that specific sort of bonding needed when dealing with teenagers and stepparents – in other words, the kind of bonding that is largely unwanted by all parties (not speaking from experience or anything…).
The entire scenario is shrouded in a cloud of ennui. While the family aren’t exactly miserable (Eve has made her peace with Michael’s constant cheating), they are alienated from one another and themselves in a way that felt very realistic to me. Problems that persist (Michael’s cheating, Astrid and Magnus’s vanishing father) are never discussed. There is a sense that things could be better if any of the family members were willing to try, but as is the case in most families, nobody is. Then Amber, a stranger arrives. Michael assumes she has come to interview Eve about her writing, and Eve assumes she is one of Michael’s girlfriends/students and she ends up staying for several weeks (this is either Smith logic re. There but for the or a comment on Britishness in general – not sure). Amber supposedly blows the lid on the whole situation – I’ll get to my thoughts on that shortly.
First, because I don’t want to be a pessimist and out of a sense of loyalty to There but for the, which I genuinely really enjoyed, I would like focus on the positives. Primarily, Astrid. Her voice felt the most authentic in the whole novel – her meandering thoughts typical of an isolated 12 year old sore at spending her summer in a way she didn’t choose, stuck for companions apart from her brother (and who wants to hang out with their big brother?) and her video camera. Smith has a beautiful way of describing minute details of meandering thoughts that make them feel important and somehow make the reader feel seen in even in their most mundane moments. Astrid’s thoughts veer wildly between her dislike of Michael, resentment toward her mother, questions surrounding her father, the girls bullying her at school – to wondering about asteroids, terrorism (the novel is set in 2003), filming everything from dead animals to every sunrise and trying to figure out who put the racist graffiti on the Indian restaurant down the road. She feels young and petulant, unnecessarily difficult in all the ways you are when you feel like your family has become something you don’t entirely recognise. Reading her put me right back into being 12 and somewhere with my mother’s partner at the time and feeling dreadfully affronted when a stranger referred to him as my dad (cue petulant ‘ugh, he’s not my dad’ (don’t feel too bad for him. He was equally as keen to point out that I was not his daughter)).
My point is, I loved Astrid, and I was always sad when her sections ended – they were by far the most engaging of the book.
My main issue with the novel came with Amber. The Accidental, friends, is a classic example of a manic pixie dream girl story. And, as I have covered on various occasions before, I just can’t stand that particular trope. The way that Amber changes the lives of all these family members has really very little to do with her actions (apart from fucking Magnus, which she does wildly and with abandon), but more to do with the ideas and thoughts that are ascribed to her by Michael, Eve and, to a certain extent, Astrid. Amber has very little agency, almost no backstory, save a couple of chapters where Smith is at her most ‘experimental’ (read: incomprehensible. To me, anyway) that, regardless, don’t really tell you anything other than that Amber has some sort of spiritual connection to movies because she was conceived in a cinema. She is one dimensional, hyper sexual, aggressive and without any sort of personality that you can pin down – MPDG down to a T.
Ali, I expected better. I am tired of this trope. I am tired of women being seen as a service – to make people feel a certain way (sexually and in terms of ego), look a certain way and be, somehow The Answer (you are not the answer*). It exhausts me, and nothing turns me off a book faster.
*This is a reference to The Type, one of my all-time favourite poems by Sarah Kay (and in general). You should read it. It’s like the anti-manic pixie dream girl read. I’m going to go read it now.
In all, The Accidental was a disappointment – even more so because I was prepared for full on book love. Sigh.