“Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes?”
– Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Chapter 17 – The Way of the Creating One.
There’s a scene in Ali Smith’s The Accidental where Eve Smart stands on the edge of the Grand Canyon and tries to tell her children about it on the phone. “I’m trying to think how to describe it. Actually it makes me think that every level pavement or road I’ve ever stood on was a kind of nonsense. I think I may feel vertiginious for the rest of my life”.
That’s as good a description of the book as any I can come up with. The Accidental is a tour de force of ecstatic writing, of prose that is light-footed, quick-witted and completely over the top. It combines the verbal appetite of early Rushdie with the engaging, urban imagination and wit of Smith’s namesake (and Booker competitor) Zadie Smith. It is a masterly performance, a conjuror’s trick of epic proportions, a laughing, juggling outrageous swindle of a book that leaves you both elated and bewildered, not quite sure whether you’re supposed to take it seriously. There is a great deal of suffering in the book, the obligatory dark messages about the times we live in (“The sky is red, a storm is coming and all the cute chipmunks in the world are potential firebombs”) – yet the book is a singing paean to the strength of the human imagination, the incredible resilience of the human spirit, and the astonishing, almost frightening power that dreams can wield.
The Accidental is the story of a family of four – 12 year old daughter, adolescent son, stepfather, mother – each one of them marooned in the middle of a family that is more archipelago than peninsula, each one wrestling with desires and demons that no one else in the family knows of. Into their frustrated lives comes Amber, a mysterious young girl, who appears out of nowhere and immediately comes to mean something special to each one of them. It is central to Amber’s charm (and her inclusion in the family) that she has the power to be whatever it is that each of them most desires – friend, sister, confidante, love object, surrogate mother, confessor, rival, alter-ego. Amber’s presence makes this fractured family come together, helps them to make sense of their lives.
Yet Amber’s presence is not entirely benign. As the novel progresses the characters (and the reader) begin to realise that they don’t really know anything about Amber, and that they have unwittingly handed over the keys to their heart to a total stranger. Who is Amber? Where does she come from and why? Will she do them harm or good? It’s the momentum of these questions that carries the novel at breakneck speed to its breathtaking finale, and beyond.
Without giving too much away, the point of the story is that Amber is a force of nature, the embodiment of the repressed desires that we all harbour in our hearts. By shocking each member of the Smart family out of their wretched complacency, she forces them to question and reevaluate the very basis of their existence. This does not always lead to happiness, but it makes it possible for them to come truly alive as individuals, in a way they never were before. (“Say I saw an animal that looks dead, Astrid said. Why would I want to poke it with a stick? To see if it’s alive”) Whether this is a good or a bad thing is one of the subjective questions that the book leaves open.
What makes this an engaging and exciting book, however, is not so much the story (which is fine by itself, but not dramatically unique) as the sheer unabashed exuberance of the writing. Smith writes like a talented twenty-five year old seeking to push herself to new limits, seeking desperately to impress. This would be cloying were it not for the sheer verbal horsepower that Smith is able to put behind it. There are four voices in the novel (five, counting the narrator) and each is distinct and pitch-perfect in itself. Smith does a wonderful, if somewhat whimsical, job of capturing patterns of thought, using the essential skittishness of the human mind as a device that permits her to add puns, witticisms, observations, stray thoughts, verbal habits, etc. to the main narrative. Added to which there’s the joy of multiple perspectives, which Smith exploits in masterly fashion, showing us how the same actions are interpreted so differently by different people.
There is a good deal of experimentation here – most notably in one stunning chapter where Smith (completely out of the blue) decides to switch her narrative to a sonnet sequence, only to have it slowly devolve into a free verse (in a laugh-out loud parody of cummings) before finally settling into the more measured abababcc cadences of Byron’s Don Juan (a peerless literary joke, given the context). There is another chapter that uses a question and answer format, part interview, part catechism.
But above all this, there is the carefree, free-wheeling quality of the prose itself; the pure, singing thrill of words for the sake of words, that Smith is able to pass on effortlessly to the reader. An example from the middle of the book will suffice (a long quote, but I can’t bring myself to stop – film buffs, enjoy):
“I opened my eyes. It was all in colour. It didn’t look like Kansas any more. The students were on the barricades, the mode was maxi, the Beatles were transcedental, they opened a shop. It was Britian. It was great. My mother was a nun who could no longer stand the convent. She married my father, the captain; he was very strict. She taught us all to sing and made us new clothes out of curtains. We ran across the bridges and jumped up and down the steps. We climbed the trees and fell out of the boat into the lake. We came first in the singing contest and narrowly escaped the Nazis.
I was formed and made in the Saigon days, the Rhodesian days, the days of the rivers of blood. DISEMBOWEL ENOCH POWELL. Apollo 7 splashdowned. Tunbridge Wells was flooded. A crowd flowed over London Bridge, and thirty-six Americans made bids to buy it. They shot the king in Memphis, which delayed the Academy Awards telecast for two whole days. He had a dream, he held these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal and would one day sit down together at the table of brotherhood. They shot the other brother at the Ambassador Hotel. RIGHTEOUS BROS it said in lights, above the hotel car park. Meanwhile my father was the matchmaker and my mother could fly using only her umbrella. When I was a child I ran the Grand National on my horse. They didn’t know I was a girl until I fainted and they unbuttoned my jockey shirt. But anything was possible. We had a flying floating car. We stopped the rail disaster by waving our petticoats at the train; my father was innocent in prison, my mother made ends meet. I sold flowers in Covent Garden. A posh geezer taught me how to speak proper and took me to the races, designed by Cecil Beaton, though they dubbed my voice in the end because the singing wasn’t good enough.
But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She’d slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in love with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun. I said I didn’t like the way he got things done. I had sex in the back of the old closing cinema. I used butter in Paris. I had a farm in Africa. I took off my clothes in the window of an apartment building and distracted the two police inspectors from watching for the madman on the roof who was trying to shoot the priest. I fell for an Italian. It was his moves on the dance floor that did it. I knew what love meant. It meant never having to say you’re sorry. It meant the man who drove the taxi would kill the presidential candidate, or the pimp. It was soft as an easy chair. It happened so fast. I had my legs bitten off by the shark. I stabbed the kidnapper, but so did everybody else, it wasn’t just me, on the Orient Express.”
Bottomline: The Accidental is a fascinating joyride of a book, a novel with enormous verbal appetite and a simple, unflinching, yet somehow deeply satisfying point to make. It may not be the most beautiful book I’ve read this year, or the best written, but it’s almost certainly the most outright enjoyable.
Does it deserve the Booker? I would certainly vote for it over the Ishiguro and the Banville. I’m ambivalent about how it compares to the Barry – it’s like comparing chalk and cheese. On the whole, I still think Barry’s is the finer book – but that’s mostly just sentiment talking. Smith is far more entertaining, far less predictable, far more interesting. She’s also, it has to be said, far less moving.
That’s no reason not to read the book, though. In fact, I cannot recommend this book enough. Read it. And if Smith’s other novels are even half as good (I, for one, plan to find out), read them too. You won’t have a dull moment.