Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. Ali Smith’s 2004 novel ‘The Accidental’ takes this truth and plays with it in a manner that is inventive, witty and incredibly assured. Smith had been winning awards and a growing readership since her debut collection of short stories ‘Free Love and Other Stories’ in 1995, indeed she is a master of the form with many excellent collections to choose from and/or collect, but ‘The Accidental’ made every one interested in fiction sit up and take notice, being shortlisted for that year’s Man Booker Prize and winning the Whitbread Novel Award. For many ‘The Accidental’ was where Ali Smith’s story begins.
It is structured quite beautifully. Before you even start there are a range of quotations to deal with from as varied sources as John Berger, Nic Cohen, Jane Austen, Sophocles and Charlie Chaplin. Quite the dinner party. These are not there to show how well read the author is. Each one is relevant to the story that is about to unfold. Throughout you will come across double meanings, literary, cultural and historical allusion, and heavy irony, all of which keep the text sharply focused. This isn’t a novel you can skim through. It demands you pay attention to every word, and punishes you if you don’t. It is bookended with short chapters that, after the final page is turned, you realise may come from the most unreliable narrator imaginable.
And that narrator’s name is Alhambra, or Amber as she mistakenly becomes known, and she is one of the greatest characters of recent times, even though she is not really ever the central one in the main sections of the book. She is the catalyst to the story; a story which is about her relationship with, and effect on, a dysfunctional middle class family whose members have stopped communicating with each other, all keeping their individual secrets safe. These secrets touch on areas such as suicide, serial adultery, abuse of power, teen sex and sexuality, and self denial. When Amber enters their lives the lines of communication have broken down to the extent that each thinks she has appeared due to her links with one of the others. By the time they realise that she is the complete stranger, they are hooked.
Each relationship that Amber has with young daughter Astrid, teen son Magnus, father Michael and his wife Eve, begins with her charming them in very different ways, then solidifying these bonds as each family member becomes more fascinated and besotted with her. She befriends, seduces, rejects and reprimands as she sees fit, apparently knowing exactly which buttons to push to get the desired response. And this bizarre situation works, at least for a while.
Astrid gets a new best friend and the big sister she always wanted. Magnus discovers a woman who will show him all the things that a teenager can normally only dream of, which is ironic as the sexually confident Michael, a tremendous depiction of an ageing lothario, is reduced to writing bloody awful poetry as he attempts to make sense of his feelings for Amber, and her rejection of his advances. It’s a lovely role reversal. But the most interesting relationship is the one between Amber and Eve as she tries to make Eve face up to her past, and present, in an attempt to change her future. Then, when you least expect it, or want it, it all comes to an abrupt end. However, this occurs with a third of the novel left and the end section is about how Alhambra, and her absence, has changed their lives for ever, and they come to realise that the Amber part of their lives, a time when life is on hold, were, for a while, the best of times.
Not a lot of music here, but as the book draws to a close there is a flashback to Michael telling Eve his top 10 favourite songs. This is far and away the best of a fairly bad bunch, one which includes Ray Stevens’ ‘Misty’ and Starland Vocal Band’s ‘Afternoon Delight’. This is Elvis Costello with ‘Oliver’s Army’:
Smith engages with middle class life in a manner that few other Scottish writers attempt, or dare, to. The writers she reminds me of most are A.L. Kennedy and Alice Thompson (whose novel ‘The Existential Detective’ will appear on these pages in the future), but there are also hints of Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson. However Smith is a more charming writer than any of these names, she delights even when she wrong foots. She plays with her readers, and they are only too willing participants.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that this talk of play and charm equal a lack of serious thought or engagement. Smith is as political a writer of fiction as any of the ones you are thinking of. Her 2007 novel, ‘Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis’, is as entertaining a commentary on gender, capitalism and global economics as you will find, all told through familial relationships and love stories. In ‘The Accidental’ topics such as Palestine, the privacy of the individual in society, consumerism and class are all addressed, but without beating the reader over the head with ideology or theory. They are woven into the story with a subtlety that is seamless, but still insists they are noticed and engaged with.
Ali Smith is a writer where you can’t see the strings, her prose appears effortless. This is rarer than you might think. Even when reading some of my favourite writers, such as James Kelman or Alan Warner, I am aware of the effort that’s gone in to the novel, and just how clever they are being. That’s fine, I like to read clever people. But Smith’s fiction is sublime, and no one else writes with such apparent ease. Nobody does it better. In the beginning was the word, and in the case of Ali Smith, the word is always good.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: Robin Jenkins was responsible for some of 20th Century Scotland’s best fiction. His better known novels include ‘The Cone-Gatherers’, ‘Just Duffy’, ‘Fergus Lamont’, ‘Childish Things’, ‘Poor Angus’ and next month’s featured novel ‘The Changeling’. ‘The Changeling’looks at our ideas of morality, personal responsibility and the concept of innocence through the relationship between 13 year old Tom Curdie and his teacher Charlie Forbes, a man whose attempts to help Tom may be more self-serving than he would like to admit.
Jenkins is one of those writers whose level of productivity lead to him being critically overlooked, at least in recent years, but he continued to write novels, and sell well, until his death in 2005. Publishing over thirty novels, from 1951’s ‘So Gaily Sings the Lark’ to 1997’s posthumous ‘The Pearl-fishers’, Jenkins explored the nature of human being through the personal relationships of his individual characters.
1. Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)
2. Doug Johnstone The Ossians (Jul)
3. Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam.(Aug)
4. Alan Spence Way To Go (Sept)
5. A.L. Kennedy Paradise (Oct)