When it comes to prose, Ali Smith throws the rule book out the window. Conventional grammar, punctuation and formatting don’t always find a home amongst the pages of her books. Instead she draws up guidelines sensitive to her characters and their inner voices. In The Accidental there are five distinct narrators all clamouring to be heard and Smith manages to give each perspective its own unique key.
The Smart family have been spending the summer at a rented holiday home in a small, Norfolk village. It seems the holiday home is less a respite and more a means of burying their heads in the sand. Astrid is a perceptive twelve-year-old girl who feels compelled to film her life, in particular the beginning and ends of each day. The summer holidays have given her a break from the bullies at school, but in a confined space with her family, her resentment of her step-father grows. Magnus is an intelligent teenager tortured by his past actions. In an attempt to gain respect from the popular boys at school, he aided them in a prank that led to the victim’s suicide. Now he hides away in his room, refusing to shower and hardly speaking. Michael has been sneaking back into London to seduce another one of his university students. He enjoys the seduction and feels cheated by a girl who is forward. Eve locks herself away in the outhouse, pretending to write a book she no longer has interest in. She’s aware of her husband’s serial-adultery but chooses to feign ignorance. It’s a family unit that no longer works because the individual parts have malfunctioned.
Because of this breakdown a stranger is able to easily slip into their lives. Amber arrives one morning, announcing that her car has broken down and it’s some time before anyone realises she wasn’t invited. They each become infatuated with Amber in their own ways. She becomes Astrid’s idol, Michael’s temptation, Magnus’ lover and Eve’s harshest critic and for a time patches up the cracks in the family, but the cracks are still there underneath. During her stay, Amber’s blunt, abrupt attitude forces them to pull their heads out of the sand they’ve buried them in. But who is Amber and why did she pick them?
Astrid’s sections are alive with the curiosity and world-weariness of a twelve year old girl stuck in isolated village with parents she doesn’t get on with and a brother who has pulled away. She’s bored and yet fascinated by the world around her. For a child she is surprisingly astute (‘most probably a him since if it was a her she’d have to be in a convent or burnt’) but still naïve and looking for some maternal acceptance. Her brother’s initial paragraphs repeat variations on the line ‘They took her head. They fixed it on the other body. Then they sent it round everybody’s email. Then she killed herself.’ which become more and more fragmented as he relays his actions over and over again, overcome by guilt and regret. Michael’s perspective is littered with the thoughts of someone who thinks they are more intelligent and talented than they actually are. His romanticised view of his affairs fits into the image of the poet he’s trying to cultivate, yet it feels false and delusional. Eve’s initial perspective is set up as a Q&A interview that mimics the writing of her book series. It reveals a woman restless and unfulfilled, tied down by a writing contract and a family she isn’t sure she wants.
The Accidental is a glimpse into the minds of a family falling apart and reveals how the arrival of a stranger can be a catalyst for change.