four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
By: 
Ali Smith
user_rating: 
0

A-TheAccidentalWith their mother Eve suffering from writer’s block and stepfather Michael, a professor, busy chasing plaid skirts, both Astrid and Magnus Smart are glad to get away on summer break. But when you’re a teenager, holiday rarely means escape. Twelve-year-old Astrid hides behind the lens of her video camera while 17-year-old Magnus glowers as only a teen can. Into their moribund vacation cottage bursts Amber, with her broken-down Volvo and surfeit of charms. Soon she insinuates herself onto the Smarts’ couch and into their lives, seducing each member of the family with a taste of what each desires. Just like summer break, Amber’s stay can’t last forever, but the questions she leaves behind will persist for years.
Pantheon. 305 Pages. $22.95. ISBN: 0375422250

Baltimore Sun 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Smith has called the book her ‘war novel.’ That this is not obvious (there are no battles, no wounded, no protests) indicates the chilling depths of the novel’s engagement with the fundamental mendacity and seductiveness of the Iraq war, for it is an engagement conducted almost metaphorically, through attention to the mendacity and seductiveness of imagining life (and war) as a movie." Catherine Gunther Kodat

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The Accidental is a thoroughly charming and melodic novel, but you shouldn’t let either of those qualities get in the way of its fierceness or its metaphysical precision. … Underneath the dazzle and the high-wire fun is a novel that belongs not to literary shenanigans but to old-fashioned trouble and redemption." Gail Caldwell

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Smith is a Modernist writer whom a classicist can love. Her allusions burst like fireworks. She nestles Sophocles next to Charlie Chaplin, Colin Firth outside Plato’s Cave, and that confection of a film, Love Actually, next to the real-life nightmare of Abu Ghraib." Karen Long

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"The Accidental is … the work of a confident writer who’s wholly uninterested in impressing her readers, preferring to pay them the ultimate compliment of simply engaging them." Stephanie Zacharek

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s difficult for any writer to pull off rotating viewpoints, but Smith does it perfectly, without a hint of clumsiness or tentativeness. … Smith captures the speech and thoughts of each character with a real, compassionate kind of virtuosity." Michael Schaub

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"That’s one niggling problem with The Accidental: [Amber is] no more than a catalyst. She’s a breeze that blows shut an open door, an element on which to hang Smith’s exploration of relationships and family in the technological age and the way our perceptions of reality are often at odds with the truth." Connie Ogle

Critical Summary

Scottish writer Ali Smith has a good stiff breeze filling her writerly sails. Her novel Hotel World (2001) was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as was The Accidental. Both books lost, but Smith did claim the prestigious 2005 Whitbread Prize for The Accidental. Critics praise her handling of multiple points of view (the chapters are narrated by each of the characters) and are in awe of her ability to transform a simple story into something wholly engaging and thematically complex, with echoes of the war in Iraq. Amber, the catalyst of the book, comes under the most scrutiny: is she real or just a thinly veiled allegory? Most reviewers echo Stephanie Zacharek in Newsday: "Even if she’s just a metaphor, she’s more human than some of the ‘real’ characters you find in contemporary literary fiction."