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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Accidental

by
Ali Smith


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Accidental



Title: The Accidental
Author: Ali Smith
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 306 pages
Availability: The Accidental - US
The Accidental - UK
The Accidental - Canada
The Accidental - India
La loi de l'accident - France
Die Zufällige - Deutschland
Accidental - España
  • Whitbread Award for Best Novel, 2005

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Our Assessment:

A- : occasionally frustrating, occasionally exhilarating, almost always fascinating

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 1-2/2006 Joseph O'Neill
Christian Science Monitor . 10/1/2006 Yvonne Zipp
The Guardian . 11/6/2005 Steven Poole
The Independent A 10/6/2005 Paul Bailey
London Review of Books . 23/6/2005 Eleanor Birne
The LA Times . 29/1/2006 Richard Eder
The NY Observer A 16/1/2006 Adam Begley
The NY Sun . 18/1/2006 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times A- 27/1/2006 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 5/2/2006 Laura Miller
The New Yorker . 23/1/2006 .
San Francisco Chronicle A 8/1/2006 Michael Schaub
Scotland on Sunday . 8/5/2005 Andrew Crumey
Sunday Times . 22/5/2005 Lucy Hughes-Hallett
The Telegraph A 29/5/2005 Alex Clark
The Telegraph A 30/5/2005 Katie Owen
The Threepenny Review A Spring/2006 Sigrid Nunez
The Times A 21/5/2005 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 20/5/2005 Sophie Ratcliffe
The Village Voice . 3/1/2006 Jessica Winter
The Washington Post A 26/2/2006 Jeff Turrentine
Die Zeit . 9/11/2006 Thomas David


  Review Consensus:

  Most are very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's an enormous technical accomplishment that reminds us of the difference between linguistic hocus-pocus and real writing; more important, it casts a spell." - Joseph O'Neill, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "The Accidental has some marvelous characterizations -- Astrid is the book's crowning glory -- and the writing brims with wit, humor, and energy." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The only problem with the brilliance of Astrid as a fictional creation is that it rather makes you wish that the whole novel was hers. Which is not to say that the other characters are exactly bland, only that they don't radiate the same sense of discovery. (...) The Accidental has an infectious sense of fun and invention. The story goes through some surprising reversals and arrives at a satisfying conclusion, which is also a beginning. But afterwards, it's the child's voice you remember: it is Astrid's book." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "This is a deeply moral book, with a lot to say about the strangeness of human behaviour, which must often be rendered inexplicable. Because Smith is a skilled novelist there is no overt moralising, and no easy explanations to comfort the reader. To read The Accidental is to be excited from first to last. Smith has produced a page-turner for the sophisticated and literate as well as adherents of the "jolly good story". I can only express my heartfelt admiration for her daring and her courage." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "With her sending up of linear forms, her undermining of beginnings, her use of in-between locations, her interest in wanderers and vagrants and accidental and premature death, her reliance on familiar motifs like stopped watches, Smith seems always to be telling versions of the same story. Things do not progress neatly; they circle and return. But the writing is fresh and unexpected each time." - Eleanor Birne, London Review of Books

  • "Amber is written with a punchy if sometimes preachy directness. Each of the Smarts, on the other hand, engages in some particular variety of interminable introspection. (...) Like an elaborately faceted lens, Smith's writing aims to magnify her story and its characters. Instead, angled as it is, it distends its creator." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "O.K., so she borrowed the plot, such as it is, from a Pasolini movie -- Teorema (1968), with an unforgettable Terence Stamp in the lead role -- and the novel is almost too cleverly constructed, too pleased with its own tidy symmetries. But those are the only quibbles Iíve come up with, so Iíll just blurt it out: Ali Smithís The Accidental, which two weeks ago won Britainís Whitbread Novel of the Year award, is a delightful book, a satire thatís playful but not cuddly, tart but not bitter, thoughtful but not heavy." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "After Amber's bold performance, the conciliatory conclusion (...) disappoints. Yet Ms. Smith's formal achievements make her required reading for serious student's of last year's fiction. (...) Her stream of consciousness is narrow, but it is swift and deep." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "(D)ynamic if flawed (.....) It's hard for readers to buy these larger dimensions to Amber, but once we accept that she is a sort of hokey deus ex machina figure -- introduced, in this case, not at the end of the story, but near the beginning -- then it's easy enough to focus on the Smarts and the ways in which their lives are altered by her arrival." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The awkwardness of the novel's moralizing is all the more disconcerting given its fine, lustrous texture on the page. Smith is a wizard at observing and memorializing the ebb and flow of the everyday mind (.....) The close-up is Smith's forte. Her long shots need a little work." - Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But the novel is saved by its skillful and touching rendering of the mental state of each family member. Smithís well-honed, even obsessive prose gives a feeling of eavesdropping on her charactersí innermost thoughts." - The New Yorker

  • "It's difficult for any writer to pull off rotating viewpoints, but Smith does it perfectly, without a hint of clumsiness or tentativeness. (...) It's especially hard considering how disparate the characters are. (...) It pays to be suspicious of writers who tie things up too neatly, who end novels a little too perfectly. But Smith doesn't have this problem -- the last sentence of the book manages to be enlightening, confusing and almost destructive in its simple power. It doesn't tie things up; it almost unravels whatever ties the reader has invented while reading the book." - Michael Schaub, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Accidental is the sort of book in which you just have to go with the flow - and for the most part it flows beautifully. (...) Amber never becomes a truly fleshed-out character: she is more like a demonic/angelic embodiment of the familyís strengths and weaknesses, bringing out their (mostly negative) latent qualities. In fact, I tired of Amber rather more quickly than the Smart family does" - Andrew Crumey, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Here it is, Ali Smithís first full-length novel, and it is as good as anyone who has been watching the progress of this talented author could possibly have hoped. (...) Smithís version of this archetypal fable is less mystical than Pasoliniís, but funnier. (...) Smith has written a proper novel with a beginning, a middle and an end, but turned it into an exuberantly inventive series of variations. At her beginning, each character is facing some kind of dead end. By the end, everything, including the story of the stranger on the doorstep, is ready to begin again. And in the middle is a fable as beautifully formed and as astringently intelligent as her barefoot delinquent angel." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Sunday Times

  • "True to form, however, it is a novel grounded on the idea of fracture -- a fissiparous, splintered artefact that has little to do with wilful gimmickry and everything to do with its author's delight in story-telling, linguistic exuberance and ambitious, frequently painful truth-seeking. (...) Its striking and thought-provoking riffs mean that reading it is sometimes a vertiginous experience; it seems, on occasion, to promise more, and something of a different order and magnitude, than a novel ought to. Can there be much higher praise than that ?" - Alex Clark, The Telegraph

  • "Mordantly observant, pitch-perfect in her evocation of the speech and thought-patterns of her characters, Smith brings the four Smarts vividly to life from the inside. In ways far subtler and more effective than Ian McEwan in his recent novel Saturday, Smith deals with middle-class complacency in the face of the Iraq War. How are we to engage with political events from which we feel so disassociated ? What (if any) is the moral responsibility of the artist ?" - Katie Owen, The Telegraph

  • "All together these narratives show Smith to be, among other wonders, a master of the use of free indirect style. Hers is the kind of prose in which, as in poetry, every word counts. Line by line, all is taut; there is no slackness anywhere. And no hot air. The effect is enthralling. The prose is full of riffs -- real ones, not the verbal air guitar one comes across so often now in the fiction of Smith's generation of writers from both sides of the Atlantic." - Sigrid Nunez, The Threepenny Review

  • "As with her astonishing first novel, Like, Smith leaves out more than she puts in. It is left to the reader to make the connections, draw the threads together, and fill in the gaps. (...) Smith plays dizzying games with her story and language; she bends and buckles her prose, breathes fire into it, lets it cool, swirls it up in unimaginable shapes. This is writing as rapture, as giddy delight." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "This allusive, ambitious and formally acrobatic work sets out to explore questions of contingency, the value of particularity and the moral status of narrative. (...) Ali Smith makes a strength of her insecurity as a novelist -- which is, in fact, an insecurity about the power of the novel. Original, restless, formally and morally challenging, she remains a writer who resists definition." - Sophie Ratcliffe, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like the musical notation with which the novel shares a name, the Buñuelian absurdity at the heart of The Accidental lifts the tale a step sharp from domestic realism (the discretions of the bourgeoisie indeed !). What's more, it demands that the reader make decisions." - Jessica Winter, The Village Voice

  • "(S)pellbinding ..... Though The Accidental is not a conventionally funny novel, readers may find themselves laughing -- in surprise and delight -- at the way Smith takes a literary trope and riffs on it until she's turned it inside out, the way a great jazz musician might." - Jeff Turrentine, The Washington Post

  • "Aus den wechselnden, mit großem Einfühlungsvermögen dargestellten Innenperspektiven der Smarts entwirft die Autorin dabei allmählich das Bild eines leeren Raums, in dem sich das soziale Ideal der Familie zu verflüchtigen scheint und sich als ähnlich untaugliches Wahrnehmungsmodell erweist wie die mutmaßlich sinnstiftenden Systeme, in denen die Figuren ihre individuellen Welten eingerichtet haben." - Thomas David, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Accidental is basically divided into 'The beginning', 'The middle', and 'The end'. Each of these parts is preceded by a brief section from the accidental of the title, Alhambra/Amber. She comes into the life of the Smart family one summer, and each part of the book is further divided into sections that focus on each of the four family-members: Eva and her second husband, Michael Smart, and her two children, Astrid and Magnus.
       The Smart family isn't doing exceptionally well when Amber comes into their lives. Eva has achieved some success with a series of books called the Genuine Article Series -- "autobiotruefictinterviews", written in question-and-answer form. Unfortunately, she is now completely and absolutely blocked. Michael is a professor of English, but his main pursuit appears to be that of his young female students. Daughter Astrid is on the verge of teen-age, and at the beginning of the summer preoccupied with recording a variety of images on her expensive video camera (dawns -- the ultimate beginnings -- for one). And seventeen year old Magnus has withdrawn almost entirely, wracked with guilt about a very nasty thing he was involved in (though his family is oblivious to the fact that something might be troubling him).
       Into this fractured but, to all appearances, still whole family comes Amber. She literally chances into their lives, with everyone believing she is there for a different reason -- Michael thinks she's there to interview Eva; Eva thinks she's one of his student-lovers, etc. Amber, straightforward and forthright, if not always usefully responsive, is accepted and welcomed on her own terms. While the others' complicated lives involve so many lies, Amber refreshingly says and does as she pleases. (Among much amusing word-play throughout the novel are the reactions to Amber's straight-faced truths, as when she leads Magnus down to dinner: "I found him in the bathroom trying to hang himself, she said. Everybody round the table laughed.").
       Astrid is immediately completely under her sway. So is, soon enough, Magnus (helped by the fact that she's willing to sexually initiate him -- and then practise with him, over and over). But Amber isn't entirely harmless: she's not only completely independent, she has a destructive bent, and doesn't much care what she leaves in her wake. And she shakes things up good in the Smart family.
       Still, Amber is only a catalyst: the mess that is the Smart family is, for the most part, their own doing. Coming home from their vacation -- once they've rid themselves of Amber -- they are given an opportunity to for a fresh start (a rather startling opportunity -- blank slate fresh, in some (but only some) respects). Instead, for the most parts, their lives crash even further down and apart -- Eva flees, Michael's student-relationships finally come back to haunt him, and Magnus' dirty deed bubbles to the surface again.
       Smith's presentation of this family-tale is remarkable: often compelling, occasionally frustrating. While it's not generally the characters themselves that narrate the sections focussed on them, Smith does inhabit their minds and provides an intimate perspective. Each has different preoccupations -- and often is hiding something from the others (though Amber causes much of that to spill out, one way or another). From the different adolescent Angsts to Eve's inability to write, Smith presents these convincingly and often beautifully -- though occasionally, too, the repetitive and very personal perspectives can be a bit much. The variety helps: stylistically The Accidental seems to offer it all.
       Interesting too is the arrangement, the five points of view each of the beginning, middle, and end have some overlap -- and some gaps. The story proceeds more or less chronologically, but significant bits are held back (so, for example, Amber's final action before leaving the vacation-house),while others are repeated from a different perspective. For the most part, Smith handles this very well.
       The Accidental is playfully but also sensibly experimental, the different styles and approaches providing texture in a way that makes the story more real than a more straightforward rendering would have. Without easy resolutions -- and with some odd choices (the way Eve abandons her children, in particular, is a bit hard to swallow) -- it's an often fascinating, occasionally confounding read. Still: well worth the effort.

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Links:

The Accidental: Reviews: Ali Smith: Other books by Ali Smith under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Ali Smith was born in 1962.

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© 2006-2012 the complete review

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