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.)