Ali Smith, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith


Fiction – hardcover; Hamish Hamilton; 320 pages; 2005.

Ali Smith’s critically acclaimed The Accidental was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recently won the Whitbread Novel Award. Despite this, I did not know anything about the storyline. Even the dust jacket blurb gives very little away.

Reading a book ‘blind’ like this, does not happen very often for me. Often my book reading choices are determined by recommendations by friends, reviews I’ve read in print or online, or, when I’m browsing in a store, the book cover image, the blurb and the first page. This means I usually know what the story is about.

The first two chapters of The Accidental were hard work because I had no reference points to guide me. But I was lulled into continuing the book because of the hypnotic writing, the subversive use of language and the continual word play. Smith does not so much use words to convey a story but caresses them into submission.

She also litters her writing with modern day references, distinctly British events that happened at the time in which the novel is set (2003), and I took great delight in identifying them, so that reading The Accidental was like a game, trying to pin down the real life news stories within its pages.

That aside, what was this novel about? In short, it’s a stranger-on-the-doorstep scenario. Amber, a beguiling 30-something woman, arrives uninvited on the doorstep of a holiday home in Norfolk. Here, the Smart family are in residence for the long, hot summer, and, unbeknown to them, Amber is here to shake up their lives a little.

She is invited in by Michael, the philandering college professor, who thinks she has come to see his wife, Eve, an author. In turn, Eve thinks Amber is one of Michael’s ‘flings’ and doesn’t bother to pay her much attention.

Meanwhile Amber becomes the focus of affection for 17-year-old Magnus, who becomes her lover, and 12-year-old Amber, who develops a schoolgirl crush on her.

Over the course of the summer each member of the Smart household becomes changed and moulded by Amber’s presence, learning much about themselves in the process.

The beauty of this odd and intriguing novel is that each chapter is narrated by a different member of the family, so that you are able to gain an insight into the changes that are occurring within.

Did I like this book? I still don’t know. I admire the inventiveness (and cleverness) of the writing. And the ending was satisfying (and quite brilliant), but I did not particularly feel for any of the characters and I read most of it feeling slightly nonchalant about it all.

That said, I do suspect that this is going to be one of those stories that stays with me a long time. It does have a touch of the Paul Austers about it. And I’m sure a few months down the track I’m going to think, ‘you know what, I should have raved about that book a lot more’.

7 thoughts on “‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith”

  1. Todd, I think Eve was basically ‘doing’ an Amber – ie. arriving on someone’s doorstep and ingratiating herself into their lives without real invitation. A bit like history repeating itself…


  2. I think Ali had Pasolini,s “Theotem” (Theorema) shot in 1968 (Ambers year of birth !) in mind writing The Accidental. Here too a stranger (although male) intrudes in a family turning lives upsidedown.
    As for the end : I guess Eve, declaired an A-plus fake by Amber, decides to rewrite her own life in a Q-A dialogue, trying to be a second Amber indeed. Clues for this are in the different Eve’s she imagines in the end, and her realization that the dead can look after themselves (standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon and “seeing” how happy her deceased parents are)


  3. Just finished this and also have ambiguous feelings about it. Hated the start and had to force myself to continue but then got in to it. I love the image of Amber literally stripping the family’s life bare, leaving room for a new beginning. I’m uneasy about the ending – ‘doing an Amber’ seems like Eve continuing her life as a fake I occasionally get confused between Amber and Eve’s histories, with the whole absent father thing. I think this was deliberate and wonder if it’s a pointer to the liklihood of Astrid, with her similar situation, taking the same path.
    So has time led you to upgrade that star rating?


  4. I recently read Smith’s “Girl Meets Boy” and have been swayed both by her writing and the story. Actually, in retrospect, it’s the way the story is written. Wait! I think it’s just the way those words read. Its as if prose is poetry.
    I am itching to read other books by her, as this was my first, but sometimes feel that this one I have liked so much that others will be a disappointment, given the expectation.
    Your review helps, though, it keeps me as confused as before. 🙂


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