erasing clouds

Book Review: Ali Smith's The Accidental

by anna battista

"My mother began me one evening in 1968 on a table in the café of the town's only cinema. One short flight of stairs away, up behind the balding red velvet of the Balcony curtain, the usherette was yawning, dandling her off torch, leaning on her elbow above the rustlings and tonguings of the back row and picking at the wood of the partition, flicking little splinters of it at the small-town heads in the dark. On the screen above them the film was Poor Cow, with Terence Stamp, an actor of such numinousness that my mother, young, chic, slender and imperious, and watching the film for the third time that week, had stood up, letting her seat thud up behind her, pushed past the legs of the people in her row and headed up the grubby aisle to the exit, through the curtain and out into the light."

This is the beginning of Ali Smith's third novel The Accidental. It follows the vicissitudes of Amber, a young woman who arrives, out of the blue, in the middle of a family holiday, revolutioning it. The Smarts are going through a deep crisis: though superficially they are happy, they are all depressed, each in their own way. Michael is a philandering university lecturer; Eve is a writer who has found success with the series "Genuine Articles", sort of "autobiotruefictinterviews", books that relate the lives of people who died in WWII, but then carry on as though they had lived (a subject that allows Smith to make fun of the biography industry); their 17-year-old son Magnus is having troubles at school for having superimposed the head of a girl to a naked female body causing his school fellow to commit suicide; their 12-year-old daughter Astrid is an introverted girl with the hobby of filming dawns and vandalism attacks. Amber arrives unannounced, and manages to change the life of this family forever, by always telling the truth, by speaking her own mind, and by entering the mind of each member of the family, the whole with disastrous consequences.

Amber's life seems to be governed by cinema: conceived in the Alhambra film theatre, after which she was named, the young woman sees everything as if it were a film, while treating the people she meets as characters in a film directed by her. Cinema and films are important in this book also; there is a reference to Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (Theorem, 1968), in which an unexpected guest (Terence Stamp) destroys a bourgeois family by seducing each of them. In The Accidental , it's the Smarts' lives that are destroyed: at the end of the book, the reader will perceive that the four characters will never be the same.

The connection this novel has with the world of cinema is strong not only because of the references to films, and because of Amber herself, but also because of the style the book is written in. The story is divided into three sections: "The beginning", "The middle", and "The end", divisions that, rather than contributing in giving the story linearity, break its rhythm, and give the readers the impression that they are watching a film rather than reading a book. It will be the readers who will have to make connections, fill in the gaps in the story with their imagination, trying to interpret which are the motivations for Amber's behaviour and the truths behind her character.

The merits of this novel are many: one of them is that, though there is no real plot here, there is a mosaic of voices created by Smith in free indirect style (the best drawn character of the whole novel is undoubtedly Astrid, whose language is studded with her favourite words such as "substandard", "ie", "etc" and "preternaturally"), a mosaic that readers will have to put together to understand the past, the present and the future of the Smarts.

If in her previous novels and short stories Ali Smith experimented with language, in The Accidental she manages to go even further and develop a unique story written in a vivid language and in a brilliant literary style.


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