Magical drama out of thin air

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The Accidental

Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 14.99

ALI Smith is a magical writer, and her new novel bursts open like a conjuring trick. "My mother began me one evening in 1968 on a table in the cafe of the town’s only cinema... I am Alhambra, named for the place of my conception."

Readers of her previous novel Hotel World will immediately recognise the same voice here, with its exuberant air of mystery. But The Accidental takes off in a very different direction.

Appropriately for a novel that begins with unlikely goings-on in a cinema, the plot has an air of urban myth blended with arthouse movie. A family of four are holidaying in Norfolk when a young woman shows up on their doorstep. She inveigles herself into their lives and seduces or enraptures each of them before vanishing.

The stranger is called Amber MacDonald, and we assume her to be the same Alhambra whose first-person riffs punctuate the book, dividing it neatly into sections called "The beginning", "The middle" and "The end". Within each part of this three-act drama there is an equally neat sense of architecture: four chapters apiece, focusing on the family members in turn, each with "the beginning", "the middle" or "the end" as first words.

It is all carefully calculated and controlled, and this extends even to Smith’s use of language. Although the chapters take us inside the minds of English lecturer Michael Smart, his author wife Eve and their offspring Magnus (17) and Astrid (12), the third-person stream-of-consciousness voice is much the same in each.

For all the sympathy Smith feels and evokes for her characters (even the ludicrously lecherous Michael), it is always the voice of the author herself that we seem to hear, skilfully manoeuvring the chess pieces in a tale whose sinister edge has almost a hint of Muriel Spark, combined with the minute observation of Virginia Woolf.

When Amber first steps into the rented holiday house from her broken-down car, Michael immediately assumes she must be one of Eve’s friends or publishing colleagues. Eve, for her part, supposes Amber to be Michael’s student (and presumably lover), while the children are glad to see a new face. Magnus is particularly pleased, since his first meeting with Amber is a sexual encounter in the toilet, just as he is contemplating suicide.

That might sound improbable, but so are all conjuring tricks - that is the point of them. From the outset, the thought is put inside the reader’s mind that perhaps all of this is an illusion, like flickering pictures on a cinema screen. 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 family’s strengths and weaknesses, bringing out their (mostly negative) latent qualities. In fact, I tired of Amber rather more quickly than the Smart family does; their eager embracing of her as part of their circle - she sleeps outside in her car by night and monopolises their time by day - is one of the book’s many enigmas which need to be taken more or less on trust. The quality of Smith’s writing makes this not too difficult.

Astrid is a budding filmmaker, toting an expensive camera bought by her parents. She and Amber go for a walk, and Amber casually tosses the camera off a bridge, destroying it. Astrid dreads the ensuing showdown with her parents, but when they realise that Amber, not Astrid, is responsible for the loss, they feel only embarrassment. Michael says he’ll sort it out through insurance.

With equal brazenness, Amber advertises her sexual relationship with Magnus, grabbing his crotch and making double entendres over the dinner table. Michael never twigs, too wrapped up in his own affair with a student he travels into work to see, and Eve is equally slow on the uptake. Eve’s whole dilemma, it seems, is a wilful blindness to the mess her family is slipping into. Having put up with Michael’s philandering for years, she has lost touch with him and with her own alienated offspring.

Teenage angst and midlife crisis are the book’s abiding themes. Magnus has been involved in some horrible internet bullying that has driven a female classmate to suicide. The chapters in which he features are a constant brooding on the possibility of discovery - "He did it. They did it. Then she did it. She killed herself" - mixed with thoughts of science, and of the lovely Amber, his dream come true. Astrid’s musings are similarly haunted with a sense of life’s futility - in one particularly striking passage she imagines the whole world being destroyed by a meteorite.

MICHAEL’S IMPENDING catastrophe is more mundane - the ever-present threat of being caught in flagrante and losing his marriage and/or job. Smith has a lot of fun with this character, whose chapters are laced with literary quotations and allusions, all of which help to underpin the man’s emptiness.

It is Eve, though, who is really the book’s hub. A writer who has found success, she is nevertheless unfulfilled. "Eve (42) sat in the church with all its buried dead outside under the grass and paving stones and wondered how her books were doing on Amazon. She wondered if there was anywhere in the village she could go online and look it up and find out. Then she wondered how her books would do on the real Amazon, if she were to drop them into it off the side of a boat."

That is both funny and sad, and the same can be said of the novel as a whole. In their minds, the characters mull over lists, song lyrics, movie scenarios - all instantly recognisable and strangely banal. Their thoughts are often like virtuoso cadenzas, sparkling but lacking content. The spectral, other-worldly Amber exposes them all as being as hollow and intangible as she herself is.

Does it all add up to something in the end? I am not entirely sure. I enjoyed every page of this book, spellbound as ever by Smith’s apparently effortless verbal magic. But no white rabbit gets pulled out of the hat.

Instead, The Accidental is more like an Indian rope trick. As the lives of its players come crashing down into self-made disaster and - perhaps - redemption, the narrative whirls itself back up into the ethereal realms of the Alhambra cafe where it all began, reminding us that whatever connections or answers we might have anticipated at the outset have never materialised. And with that, it disappears.

Andrew Crumey is Scotland on Sunday’s literary editor