Magical mysteries

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Hamish Hamilton, 320pp

THERE'S A SCENE IN ALI SMITH'S dazzling new novel in which a teenager tells his younger sister why real life isn't like the movies. Drop a pen in real life, he says, and it's accidental; drop one in a film and the dropped pen will invariably turn out to have huge significance. That point holds good for many novels, too: what we are told about characters' thoughts is often only scene-setting for a strictly linear plot. Ali Smith doesn't work like that because life's beauty, horrors and complexity don't work like that. And if all that lot's going to be dropped into the plot, accidental realism is the only way to do it.

Yet The Accidental is miles away from being a realistic novel. True, its central characters might have strayed straight over from Middle-Class Novel Land - Michael Smart, the lecherous lecturer; his partner Eve, and their children Magnus (17) and Astrid (12), who are staying in a rented holiday home in Norfolk. But then there's Amber, who comes into their lives, it seems, by accident and seduces - actually or metaphorically - all of them.

First glimpses of her are hazy and ambiguous ("kind of a woman but more like a girl"), as are last ones ("it was as if Amber had deleted herself, or was never there in the first place"). Astrid's first sight of Amber is an image blurred out by light in her video camera viewfinder; to Magnus, whom she saves from suicide, she seems altogether angelic. She has mysterious powers: Michael, trying to fantasise about having sex with her, finds he cannot even picture her; yet she can just hold Eve's hand and stare into her eyes and understand everything about her.

We know that she was conceived in a cinema (the Alhambra), that she can effortlessly infiltrate the other four characters' lives, that she knows all their secrets and can fathom their every wish. Add her essential characteristics of rebelliousness and omniscience, and you realise that she is less a flesh-and-blood figure, more of a force field of the imagination.

In the hands of a less skilled novelist, a character like this would be embarrassingly unbelievable. Nothing would be worse: a character meant to show all of life's potential being deflated by pretentiousness, implausibility or a host of other traps our minds put in place as we sniff out the "non-real".

But as Smith is one of our greatest imaginative writers - remember the decomposing ghost slowly losing her grip on language in Hotel World? - there is no danger of this happening. Implausible and impossible to pin down she may be, but Amber is no mere example of "look at me" writerly flamboyance, no shallow exercise in style. She may not be clearly described, but you can't help believing in her all the same.

That's such an amazing trick to pull off that you wonder how on earth Smith did it. A large part of the answer lies in the bravura passages when Amber talks to us directly about cinema, how it gave people back an enjoyment of the smallest details of life (the leaves moving in the trees in the backgrounds of the early silents), how all our small lives are just backgrounds to its great stories. But even before that, the ground has been well prepared by Smith's skilful depiction of how Amber mends the fragmented psyches of the family into whose lives she gatecrashes.

Take the way she tells us about Astrid, taking us inside the mind of a precocious 12-year-old, catching its rhythms, the way some thoughts buzz around her brain, and others wander in and lounge around. They're not significant, these thoughts: the precise impression a thumbprint makes on her face; how much air is trapped inside a hazelnut; how odd some words sound. Even Astrid realises how gauche and immature such ramblings make her seem.

But all the time, as Smith shows her working out her place in the world, she is also smuggling in more details about her family: how, for example, her mother is writing a book, how her brother has been taken out of his school because of something she doesn't yet know about. And because Smith is one of the best inner landscape painters around, because she can open out that 12-year-old girl's mind to include anything from bullying to David Kelly and the war in Iraq, it is impossible not to follow her. With Magnus, too, there is plenty that we can't understand at first, that we have to take on trust. He has taken an image from a porn site on his computer, merged it with that of a girl in his school and attached it to an e-mail that has been widely circulated among the school's pupils; the girl then committed suicide, so he is now consumed by guilt.

But again, note Smith's inventiveness: she makes Magnus recite his sin in a repeated mantra, which she then changes so the reader knows what he wants to say but can't bring himself to. When he meets Amber, and she saves his life, she understands at once what he has done. "I get the picture," she says, helping him down from his improvised noose in the bathroom. She looks, he notices, "like a beautiful used girl off an internet site ... all lit up against the wipe-clean wallpaper". That vagueness again. No wonder he thinks she is an angel.

MICHAEL IS SIMILARLY LOVESTRUCK, but whereas Amber will respond to the children's imagination, showing Astrid how to see what's important and what isn't and initiating Magnus into the delights of abundant sex, she has no interest in Michael. And why should she: a creature of the imagination, what can she possibly have in common with someone who dissects and drains words for a living? Or with Eve, who writes a series of books about ordinary people, and whom she considers a Grade-A fraud?

When Amber - the woman who, perhaps, isn't really there in the first place - disappears from the picture, some of the life also goes out of the book. But when she's there, opening up Astrid's and Magnus's imaginations, and when Smith writes directly about her, in passages that are positively pyrotechnical and humming with inventiveness, this book is irresistible.

For anyone who loves language, it is also a positive feast. Throughout, Smith tries out different types of language (internet pages, TV schedules) and styles (sonnets, soliloquies, interrogations). It's clever, but there's so much brio and sheer enjoyment of words about it that it is beyond cleverness. And although, when writing about Amber, she develops a style that perfectly matches the character's charisma and frames an effective discourse on the creative act, it never descends into self-indulgence. The discipline about her writing prevents it: even such an apparently free-flowing book as this has its beginning, middle and end marked out with almost ludicrous clarity.

But what you remember about the novel isn't that. It's the sheer imagination, shining across the darkness as bright as any projectionist's beam, and leaving all kinds of images unspooling in the readers' minds long after the final page.