Sunday, April 02, 2006

Accidental Deliberations

My head having been restored to me sans cotton wool stuffing, thank goodness, I was at last able to finish Ali Smith's Booker shortlisted, The Accidental.

And excellent it is indeed.

A dysfunctional family spends the long summer vacation in a rented house in a Norfolk village. Eve, the mother is a blocked novelist. Michael her husband (and the children's stepfather) is an English lecturer (lecher?) who's about to be suspended for having affairs with students. Magnus (17) is on the brink of suicide after a school prank went disastrously wrong, while Astrid (12) is totally disaffected and bored, trying to make sense of the world around her through the lens of a camcorder.

Enter Amber aka Alhamabra, named for the cinema where she was conceived between shows. Michael thinks she's one of Eve's friends. Eve thinks she's one of Michael's students. Each member of the family in turn falls under her spell. But is she malign spirit, ghost, or flesh and blood? Does she exist at all? (There's a very clever echo of this idea when Michael watches Hitchcock's 1938 The Lady Vanishes with the kids towards the end of the novel.) The question doesn't need to be answered because the mystery is in itself delicious. What's real or unreal anyway in fiction or in film?

More than this I won't say because I don't want to post a spoiler - the plot is too enjoyable to give away. The characters are strong and their internal struggles vividly depicted. Smith uses a different narrative method for each of them, moving from one consciousness to another in alternating chapters. (I particularly enjoyed being inside Astrid's head - this is just how a 12 year old would think, and I could feel Magnus agony as he replayed over and over the events that led to tragedy.)

There's a very pleasing symmetry to the architecture of the book. And Smith takes some dazzling risks with the language (Michael's atrocious poetry. The breathless invocations of old films.)

What else could you want, hey?

Some humour? Yes, plenty of that too.

Smith is up against the other Smith (Zadie, of course) for this year's Orange Prize, both 5/2 favourites at the moment.

Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is also listed, and there are some very interesting parallels I feel with Ali Smith's novel. (What's real vs. what's imagined? The mirror held up against 21st Britain.)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds good. Think I'll just borrow it :)

__earth said...

affair with students! w00t! Now that's something.

The Eternal Wanderer said...

Nice review, Sharon! The Accidental does sound like a good read. I just have to keep it to my wishlist for now as I have about nine books in reading queue... That's what sales and promotions do to you, you become an untreatable chronic bookaholic who needs to have his daily word count fix!

Cheeky Monkey said...

MPH was doing a reading group session for this book last month, but nobody seems to want to participate. I wonder why? Overseas, you'd have plenty of people joining reading groups but here, it's like one or two...

Walker said...

An excellent review of an excellent book. My favourite novel released in the past couple of years in fact. I found being in Astrid's head very entertaining too, and being in Michaels' was intriguing. (So astute yet so f***ed up.) Did you find his 'poetic thoughts' entertaining too?

And look, you posted the cover. I love that cover. Oh I do. I really do. :-)

bibliobibuli said...

anon - however you get it, worth reading ... and there is a copy in BC library

_earth - it happens ...

eternal wanderer - only 9 books?

cheeky monkey - from what i've learned about reading groups - they always work best if in an informal environment with the responsibility of choosing books shared between members who also enjoy a social bond ... i've been lucky enough to belong to one which has been going for 5 years now and goes from strength to strength ... and the oldest one in malaysia has run successsfully for 35 years ...

it will be interesting to see how the british council's reading group fares (= for library members ... am i advertising?)

thanks walker - yes did enjoy michael's thoughts especially the punning bit which was so funny ... i love the episode in the bookshop too when he's reading the mountaineering books ... and the cover of the british edition is far n ice than the US edition

(must go and find the dust cover, i took it off when i leant the book out and then the book was in my bag for weeks ...)