Is ?The Accidental? the next ?Beloved?? Oct 21, 2008
I?ve had The Accidental sitting on my desk for the past couple months. I put it there after finishing it, with the intention of reviewing Ali Smith?s remarkable novel. But this tale of a family on holiday in the English countryside is so distinct, enigmatic, and powerful that it has kept me guessing and wondering since its end?the way only certain books resonate within you and, unlike most novels on bookstore shelves, ask to be remembered.
The Accidental centers around a mysterious conceit: A woman unknown to an upper-middle-class family arrives at their vacation home one day; she exerts an unseen-and-inexplicable influence on each family member; she stays with them for days and leaves them all changed in unbelievable ways. ?Unbelievable? is a good word for describing The Accidental. Smith?s writing is deep, clean, and beautiful. The story?s impact is simple yet lasting. But the central pillar of the novel?that a stranger would be welcomed as a largely unquestioned and ongoing guest in a family?s home?is unbelievable. The woman isn?t magic. She isn?t an expert at mind control. She?s merely a displaced woman named Amber. Or is she? In Smith?s hands, the implausibility surrounding Amber?s new place in this fictional household actually becomes a thematic mirror in the final quarter of the novel?with subtle, satisfying brilliance.
Amber?s arrival?pregnant with so many consequences?reminds me of the arrival of the ghostly, strange title character in Toni Morrison?s stunning classic, Beloved (perhaps the best book of the last 25 years). The comparisons don?t end there. Like Beloved, Amber establishes and maintains a spooky hold over the inhabitants of the story. Like Morrison?s, Smith?s prose is vibrant and nearly perfect, imbuing her characters with so much depth and life. The character of Beloved, however, is more otherworldly than Amber, and Morrison?s novel is rooted in the horrors of slavery rather than the dysfunctions of a particular well-off English family.
Beloved makes a weightier, more refined read?and is certainly a singular literary experience. However, The Accidental is still worthy of the comparison. It begs to be savored and remembered, and time will show us where it stands among the giants of contemporary literature.