The Accidental: A Novel
by Ali Smith
A review by Joseph O'Neill
The ordinarily attentive reader can be forgiven for having lost Ali Smith in the
fireworks of publicity accorded her near-homonymous compatriots Monica Ali and
Zadie Smith. But now, with the publication of (Ali) Smith's bewitching third novel
(which, like her second, Hotel
World, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), there can be no mistaking
her talent for anyone else's -- and theirs, at the risk of being invidious, may
often seem squiblike by comparison with what's on offer in these persistently
The central idea of The Accidental is a familiar one (familiar, certainly,
to anyone recalling Pasolini's Theorem, starring Terence Stamp, whose
name appears on the book's first page): family succumbs to magical charms of
irresistible stranger and is forever changed. Thus the Smarts, a foursome washed
up in a miserable Norfolk summer rental and, more especially, on separate islets
of middle-class unhappiness, by accident take into their midst Amber, or Alhambra
-- a peculiarly beautiful thirtysomething vagabond, supernatural in her perceptiveness
and psychosexual prowess, who acts as an "exotic fixative" for philandering
dad, self-trapping mom, and fucked-up kids. By summer's end the family Smart,
though of course not finally cured of its difficulties, is at least no longer
marooned in them; a fable of escape and renewal has been miraculously enacted.
The real story, though, is the language. In a narrative that alternates between
the characters' viewpoints -- twelve-year-old Astrid, a kind of junior Lydia
Davis, is a particularly wonderful voice -- Smith maintains a playful, poetic
idiom of startling and clarifying emotional power, so that the prose, in its
logical beauty and its surprisingness, serves as an analogue of the enchantment
dispensed by Amber. It's an enormous technical accomplishment that reminds us
of the difference between linguistic hocus-pocus and real writing; more important,
it casts a spell.
Special Atlantic Monthly
subscription price for Powell's shoppers subscribe today for only $19.95.
Atlantic Monthly places you at the leading edge of contemporary issues plus the very best in fiction, poetry, travel, food and humor. Subscribe today and get 8 issues of the magazine delivered to you for only $19.95 that's a savings of over $19 off the newsstand price.
To order at this special
Powell's price click here.