It is, let's say, about a girl.
On the surface, Ali Smith's Booker-nominated novel, The Accidental, is in fact about a girl. The seemingly harmless stranger named Amber turns up at the door of an English country house and turns out, to crib a line from a Hollywood film, to be the rock that they broke themselves against.
Underneath, however, the book is a raw vein of sheer linguistic talent that belies its origins in the ideas of Smith, who calls herself a "boring, booky girl." The book, about how people break down and the terrifying possibilities of who they might become, is inevitably fractured by the astonishing, dizzying talent of its writing. And yes, this observation on a book with no quotation marks, with what could nominally be called chapters that begin in mid-sentence, which breaks into poetry for God's sake, could be called incongruous. Ironically, it is even divided into a Beginning, The Middle and The End, but with a scattershot stream of multiple consciousnesses in-between. Yet what holds The Accidental together through all of its change of character and fractured perspective is that the writing stands up in the end. The center holds, and so we find ourselves shaken if not by a new kind of novel then at least by a startling unique point of view.
So we meet the Smarts, who have retreated to their tragic little Norfolk cottage house on holiday, which Eve says is "a quintessential place." Eve is the heart of the broken family really, mother to Astrid and Magnus, wife to her second husband Michael, and the bestselling author of a series of "autobiotruefictinterviews," or autobiographies written from the point of view of real people who have already died, revealing the rest of their lives as best she can reconstruct them.
Michael, on the other hand, is too smart for his own good. A prototypical overeducated snob and professor of English literature, Dr. Flint is also a fraudulent academic professionally and a fair creep personally, taking advantage of his young female students in order to sleep with them.
Their children are Astrid, just 12 years old, who filters the world through the lens of her digital camera and Magnus, 17 years old and a promising young mind in the field of mathematics, who carries a secret so dark that he can barely find the words for it.
And Amber, the barefoot girl who, like Smith, has the minimalist entrance that belies her enormous impact. "Then this happened. Sorry I'm late. I'm Amber. Car broke down." And that's all it takes.
It's hard to even describe The Accidental as writing in the traditional sense of the word. It reveals itself as a stream-of-consciousness portrayal of events, showing how people feel and believe so much more than merely showing their actions and causative effects, as if Smith's brain had fallen open and this story of a middle class world, darkened by the merest ill intentions, had fallen out intact.
Take this, a mere three sentences that encompasses Eve's visceral reaction to a kiss from Amber, "Eve was moved beyond belief by the kiss. The place beyond belief was terrifying. There, everything was different, as if she had been gifted with a new kind of vision, as if disembodied hands had strapped some kind of headset on to her that revealed all the unnamed, invisible colours beyond the basic human spectrum, and as if the world beyond her eyes had slowed its pace especially to reveal the spaces between what she usually saw and the way that things were tacked temporarily together with thin thread across those spaces."