The plotline isn't exactly new. The unexpected intruder whom everyone welcomes because they are too arrogant, distracted or self-involved to do otherwise wreaks havoc and transforms the lives of those around her. This is the formula for many successful narratives including John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. But this time around, in Brit Ali Smith's new novel The Accidental, the dramatic device takes the form of some kind of Goldilocks on acid.
Amber is the crazed catalyst for upheaval. She walks into the lives of a family summering at a rental in New England. The mother is a successful author stuck with writer's block. Her husband is a cliché, a literature professor waiting to be sacked for having bedded too many of his college students. The son is struggling with his role in the recent suicide of a classmate. And the daughter is coping with teenaged angst.
Amber shakes it all up with decisive action, biting honesty and predatory sexual activity. She is the foil who strips the truth bare, exposing that no one in the clan is listening.
Ali Smith warns against disconnectedness in modern families, but what sets her novel apart from the pack, and what qualified it as Booker Prize short list, is its structure: different voices with different points of view describing the same incident. The result is a rich treatment of action that spits in the face of conventional chronology and opens up a range of variety in the lives of characters. Their inner lives and the ways in which they cannot communicate is made startlingly clear.
Unconventional punctuation and simple organization contribute to the alarming nature of this book (the three sections are labeled Beginning, Middle and End). The intimacy Smith creates with each character also creates an unsettling effect. Their voices are so immediate, so fused with their subconscious thoughts, that the reader experiences characters from inside their heads, with all the incomplete, impulsive thoughts that go along with unspoken language. The effect is the terrifying sensation of being lost inside an individual and of understanding all too well the difficulty of connecting with someone else. There is something existentially dreadful about this, but at the same time it's funny and thrilling. The Accidental is a page turner simply because it's so different.