The galvanizing force in Ali Smith’s latest novel is the mysterious stranger on the doorstep who rearranges a family’s psychic furniture, takes a power sander or an ax to a few key pieces, and slips a couple heirlooms into her coat on the way out. In other versions of the tale, the interloper raises and then finesses the suspicion that she isn’t what she seems to be, but The Accidental‘s intruder, Amber, hides loudly in plain sight—she’s rude and mean and incapable of concealing her ill will toward her vacationing middle-class targets, the ridiculous Smarts, who mostly laugh nervously and scramble to accommodate their eccentric guest. In the context of Smith’s ongoing pursuit of stories as meta-lit-crit (the Scots author’s collections include the indicative titles Other Stories and Other Stories and The Whole Story and Other Stories), Amber beckons to be seen as a chameleonic device, which brightens and darkens as the novel rotates through five different characters’ perspectives. If one’s interpretation of Amber shifts, The Accidental changes colors.
“She had rung the doorbell this morning. He had opened the door and she’d walked in. Sorry I’m late, she’d said. I’m Amber. Car broke down.” Michael Smart, a college literature professor, assumes that the odd arrival—”[a] bit raddled, maybe thirty, maybe older, tanned like a hitchhiker, dressed like a road protester”—has come to their rented summer cottage in Norfolk, England, to see his wife, Eve. A blocked author of popular pocket histories, Eve pegs Amber at a glance as her lecherous husband’s “latest ‘student’ ” and proudly refuses to kick up any fuss. Eve’s lonely, picked-on 12-year-old daughter, Astrid, worships the irreverent newcomer and accepts the blame when Amber tosses the girl’s expensive digital video camera off a bridge. Astrid’s teenage brother, Magnus, whose own social insecurities have recently mired him in a terrible tragedy, takes Amber for no less than an angel when she interrupts his intended suicide: “I found him in the bathroom trying to hang himself, she said. Everybody round the table laughed. Magnus laughed too.” Having saved the boy’s life, Amber appoints herself his erotic tutor and earns yet more giggles when she announces, “We’ll be away about an hour, long enough for me to ravish him sexually, then bring him back safely.” (Amber punchlines abound. To Michael, her fellow connoisseur of jailbait: “As if I give a monkey’s fuck about what you think about books.“)
Short-listed for the latest Booker Prize, The Accidental is ostensibly another familiar hothouse of sexual and domestic dysfunction, another forlorn New Labour–era swipe at middle-class complacency, another British novel about a well-off family unraveling in their countryside getaway. (Other recent entrants in the last category include Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, Rachel Cusk’s In the Fold, and Justin Cartwright’s The Promise of Happiness.) On the surface, Smith floats a parody of terminal marital noncommunication and the reticent civility associated with British etiquette. It’s Eve who nods to one of The Accidental‘s forebears, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, when she muses that Amber is an “anecdote for future dinner parties,” but the Monty Python skit would be funnier: Amber puts a match to the curtains, Eve douses the flames with her guest’s breakfast tea and dashes off to put on another kettle (“Won’t be a moment!”), bored Amber wanders away for a quickie with Magnus, slinging insults at Michael over his stepson’s naked shoulder as they grind away on Astrid’s petal-pink bedspread.
Like the musical notation with which the novel shares a name, the Buñuelian absurdity at the heart of The Accidental lifts the tale a step sharp from domestic realism (the discretions of the bourgeoisie indeed!). What’s more, it demands that the reader make decisions. The Smarts politely edge away from asking Amber uncomfortable questions, so the task falls to us, and perhaps the uninitiated should read no further. Who, or what, is Amber? Given Smith’s previous animations of disembodied souls (her novel Hotel World and her story “The Hanging Girl” both believe in ghosts), Amber could be a phantom—perhaps one from Eve’s “Genuine Article” books, a series of “autobiotruefictinterviews” with casualties of World War II. (“You’re not fucking a shadow, you know,” Amber informs Magnus, inviting the possibility that he is.) With her earthy barefoot righteousness, she might be the resentful spirit of a slain hippie utopia; conceived in a cinema, Amber could be a visitor from the Dream Life, or a dosage of Good Art, exciting and unnerving and life-altering to everyone who touches her, or a toxic brew of Bad Art, tacked together from pop-cult scraps—Smith renders Amber’s biography as an inane Oscar-night montage of famous movie moments. And like cinema, Amber is a fixative; she might end, but she never goes away. In its vaguely Borgesian final movement, The Accidental at once closes the circle and blasts it wide open.