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Ali Smith: The Accidental

The kind of writing Ali Smith does in her novel The Accidental isn't as hard as it looks. Smith tells a story of one family's encounter with a con artist, using a stream-of-consciousness style to channel, in turn, the thoughts of a precocious 12-year-old girl, her suicidal older brother, their philandering stepfather, their pop-novelist mother, and the mysterious stranger who invites herself into their vacation home and prompts them all to re-evaluate their habits. Because Smith takes a structuralist approach—cycling through each character's voice, one at a time, through three iterations—she doesn't have to grapple with the "where to begin" questions that most novelists do. And since her characters let their minds and grammar wander, Smith needn't worry about crafting crystalline sentences. A lot of the time, her words don't even have to make sense.

But while Smith indulges some of the worst traits of postmodern, hyper-literary, Man Booker Prize-finalist fiction—including slapping together an ending that's both pat and a little confusing—The Accidental nonetheless stands as an impassioned case for the art of raring back and letting go. Smith frequently rambles her way to eloquence by finding her characters' voices and sharing their concerns. She's especially good with the kids—the preternaturally self-confident camera buff Astrid, who contemplates universes within universes, and the cloudy Magnus, who's living with the repercussions of a horrible school prank. Smith gets inside their adolescent egomania, their mercurial obsessions, and the way their houseguest Amber becomes a perfect best friend and lust object, even as she's mocking their values.


Smith keeps some necessary distance from Amber, a social chameleon who fits into any situation because she's vague on the details of her life, yet open with her opinions. Amber wanders into the vacation house, and because nobody in the family really knows each other's business, they all presume that somebody else must've invited her. She proceeds to destroy them, first through flattery, then through cruelty. Amber is a pure literary construct, intended to push the novel's plot along while Smith comments on media addiction, acts of grace, and how chance governs our lives. She's convenient—too convenient—but she's still useful. And though The Accidental is more spectacularly messy than brilliant, it has a strong perspective on what it means to be alive in the early '00s, and constantly tugged at by the disturbingly similar feelings of guilt and self-righteousness.

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