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  • Written by Ali Smith
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  • The Accidental
  • Written by Ali Smith
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On Sale: April 10, 2007
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27975-0
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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The Accidental is the dizzyingly entertaining, wickedly humorous story of a mysterious stranger whose sudden appearance during a family’s summer holiday transforms four variously unhappy people. Each of the Smarts–parents Eve and Michael, son Magnus, and the youngest, daughter Astrid–encounter Amber in his or her own solipsistic way, but somehow her presence allows them to se their lives (and their life together) in a new light. Smith’s exhilarating facility with language, her narrative freedom, and her chromatic wordplay propel the novel to its startling, wonderfully enigmatic conclusion.Ali Smith’s acclaimed novel won the prestigious Whitbread Award and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.


The beginning

of things -- when is it exactly?

Astrid Smart wants to know. (Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski.) 5.04 a.m. on the substandard clock radio. Because why do people always say the day starts now? Really it starts in the middle of the night at a fraction of a second past midnight. But it's not supposed to have begun until the dawn, really the dark is still last night and it isn't morning till the light, though actually it was morning as soon as it was even a fraction of a second past twelve i.e. that experiment where you divide something down and down like the distance between the ground and a ball that's been bounced on it so that it can be proved, Magnus says, that the ball never actually touches the ground. Which is junk because of course it touches the ground, otherwise how would it bounce, it wouldn't have anything to bounce off, but it can actually be proved by science that it doesn't.

Astrid is taping dawns. There is nothing else to do here. The village is a dump. Post office, vandalized Indian restaurant, chip shop, little shop place that's never open, place for ducks to cross the road. Ducks actually have their own roadsign! There is a sofa warehouse called Sofa So Good. It is dismal. There is a church. The church has its own roadsign too. Nothing happens here except a church and some ducks, and this house is an ultimate dump. It is substandard. Nothing is going to happen here all substandard summer.

She now has nine dawns one after the other on the mini dv tape in her Sony digital. Thursday 10 July 2003, Friday II July 2003, Saturday 12, Sunday 13, Monday 14, Tuesday 15, Wednesday 16, Thursday 17 and today Friday 18. But it is hard to know what moment exactly dawn is. All there is when you look at it on the camera screen is the view of outside getting more visible. So does this mean that the beginning is something to do with being able to see? That the day begins as soon as you wake up and open your eyes? So when Magnus finally wakes up in the afternoon and they can hear him moving about in the room that's his in this dump of a substandard house, does that mean the day is still beginning? Is the beginning different for everyone? Or do beginnings just keep stretching on forwards and forwards all day? Or maybe it is back and back they stretch. Because every time you open your eyes there was a time before that when you closed them then a different time before that when you opened them, all the way back, through all the sleeping and the waking and the ordinary things like blinking, to the first time you ever open your eyes, which is probably round about the moment you are born.

Astrid kicks her trainers off on to the floor. She slides back across the horrible bed. Or possibly the beginning is even further back than that, when you are in the womb or whatever it's called. Possibly the real beginning is when you are just forming into a person and for the first time the soft stuff that makes your eyes is actually made, formed, inside the hard stuff that becomes your head i.e. your skull.

She fingers the curve of bone above her left eye. Eyes fit the space they are in, exactly like they were made for each other, the space and the eye. Like the play she saw with the man in it whose eyes were gouged out, the people on the stage turned him so the audience couldn't see, then they gouged out his eyes then whirled the chair round and he had his hands up at his face and he took them away, his hands were full of red stuff, it was all round his eye sockets. It was insane. It was jelly or something similar. It was his daughters who did it or his sons. It was one of Michael's tragedies. It was quite good though. Yes, exactly, because at a theatre the curtain goes up and you know it's the beginning because, obviously, the curtain's gone up. But the way the lights go down, the audience goes quiet, and right after the curtain goes up, then the air, if you're sitting near the stage, you can actually smell a different other air with bits of dust and stuff in it moving. Like when Michael and her mother made her go to the other tragedy that was completely insane about the woman who loses it and kills her children, but before she does she sends them, two boys, really small boys, off the stage, they actually come down into the audience and walk through it, the mother has given them poisoned clothes etc. to give to the princess their father is marrying instead of her and they go to a house or a palace somewhere behind the audience, this doesn't happen on the stage, it doesn't happen anywhere except in the story i.e. in your head but even though you know it doesn't, you know it's just a play, even so, somewhere behind you the princess is still putting on the poisoned things and dying a horrible death. Her eyes melt in their sockets and she comes out in a rash like if terrorists dropped spores on the Tube. Her lungs melt and

Astrid yawns. She is hungry.

She is starving, actually.

It is literally hours till anything like breakfast even if she wanted to eat anything in this unhygienic dump.

She could go back to sleep. But typical and ironic, she is completely awake. It is completely light outside now; you can see for miles. Except there is nothing to see here; trees and fields and that kind of thing.

5.16 a.m. on the substandard clock radio.

She is really awake.

She could get up and go and film the vandalism. She is definitely going to do it today. She will go to the restaurant later and ask the Indian man if it is okay to. Or maybe she will just film it without him knowing in case he says no. If she went right now there would be nobody there and she could just do it. If anybody happened to be up and around at this time of the morning (nobody will, there is nobody awake for miles but her, but if there were, say there were) they would just think oh, look, there is a twelve-year-old girl playing with a dv camera. They would probably notice what a good model the camera is, that's if they knew anything about cameras. She would tell them if they asked that she is a visitor for the summer (true) filming the scenery (true) or that it is for a school project (could be true) about different buildings and their uses (quite good). And then maybe there will be vital evidence on her mini dv tape when she gets home and at some point in the investigation into the vandalism someone in authority will remember and say oh that twelve-year-old girl was there with a camera, maybe she recorded something really what is the word crucial to our enquiries, and they will come and knock on the door, but what if they aren't still here for the summer, what if they've already gone home, some investigations take quite a long time, well then the authorities will trace her back home with their computers by looking up Michael's name or by asking the people who own this substandard house and, because of her, things will finally be put right and a mystery like who is responsible for the vandalism at the Curry Palace will actually be solved.

This is a quintessential place. Her mother keeps saying so, she says it every evening. There don't seem to be many other people here on holiday regardless of how quintessential it is, maybe because it's not actually holiday time yet, officially. People in the village do a lot of staring even when Astrid isn't doing anything, is just walking about. Even when she isn't using her camera. But it is nice weather. She is lucky not to be at school. The sun has come out on most of the dawns she has recorded. This is what a good summer is like. In the past, before she was born, the summers were better, they were perpetual beautiful summers from May to October in the past apparently. The past is a different century. She herself will probably be the one to live longest into the new century out of all the people here in this house right now, her mother, Magnus, herself, Michael. They are all more part of the old century than she is. But then again her whole life, mostly, was lived in the old century. But then again their whole lives were too, and percentage-wise she has already lived 25 percent of hers in the new (if you start at 2001 and allow for the next six months of this year now to have already happened). She herself is 25 per cent new, 75 per cent old. Magnus has lived three out of seventeen in it so comes out at. Astrid works it out. Magnus is 17ish per cent new, 83 per cent old. She is 8 per cent more in the new than Magnus. Her mother and Michael are way out there on a much much more significantly small percentage in the new, a much much more significantly large percentage in the old. She will work it out later. She can't be bothered now.

She shifts on the substandard bed. The substandard bed creaks loudly. After the creak she can hear the silence in the rest of the house. They are all asleep. Nobody knows she is awake. Nobody is any the wiser. Any the wiser sounds like a character from ancient history. Astrid in the year 1003 BC (Before Celebrity) goes to the woods where Any the Wiser, who is really royalty and a king but who has unexpectedly chosen to be a Nobody and to live the simple life, lives in a hut, no, a cave, and answers the questions that the people of the commonweal come for miles around to ask him (most probably a him since if it was a her she'd have to be in a convent or burnt). People who want to know answers to things have to knock on the door of the cave, well, the rock outside, she picks up a rock and knocks it against another rock, this lets Any the Wiser know that someone is waiting. I brought an offering, Astrid calls into the dark of the cave. She has brought an offering of croissants. You probably can't get good croissants in the woods, like you can't get them out here. Both Michael and her mother have been complaining about no croissants since they got to this substandard village which is typical and ironic since they're the ones who wanted to come here and have made her and Magnus come and made her even more weird and unlike everybody is supposed to be than she already is, though with any luck by the time school starts again in September Lorna Rose and Zelda Howe and Rebecca Callow will have forgotten about her being taken out of school early two months before.

Astrid concentrates them out of her head. She is at the door of a cave. She is carrying croissants. Any the Wiser is delighted. He nods at Astrid to come forward.

He glints at her through the darkness of the cave; he is old and wise; he has a fatherly look in his eye. Answer my question, oh revered sage and oracle, Astrid begins.

But that's all she can say because she doesn't have a question. She doesn't know what to ask him about, or for. She can't think of a question, not one she's allowed to say inside herself in actual words to herself, never mind out loud to a complete stranger, even a stranger she's made up.

(Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski.)

She sits up. She picks up her camera, turns it over in her hand. She shuts its screen away, ejects the beginnings tape, slides it into its little case and puts it on the table. She clips the non-beginnings tape into the camera instead. She lies on her back then shifts over on to her front. By the end of their time here she will have sixty-one beginnings, depending on if they go home on the Friday, the Saturday or the Sunday. Sixty-one minus nine, i.e. still at least fifty-two more to go. Astrid sighs. Her sigh sounds too loud. There is no noise of traffic here. It is probably the fact that there is no noise that is keeping her so awake. She is completely awake. In a minute she will go and film the vandalism. She closes her eyes. She is on the inside of a hazelnut; she fits against the shell perfectly, as if she was born in it. Her head has it as a helmet. It fits the curve of her knees. It is completely enclosed. It is a complete room. It is completely safe. Nobody else can get inside it. Then she worries about what she will do about breathing, since the nut is completely sealed. She begins to worry about how she is doing any breathing now. There is obviously a finite amount of air, if any, inside a hazelnut. Then she begins to worry that Lorna Rose and Zelda Howe and Rebecca, if they were ever to find out she had ever had a thought like that she was inside a hazelnut, would think she was even more laughable and a mental case. Lorna Rose and Zelda Howe are playing a game of tennis on a public court in a park. Astrid walks past with Rebecca. Rebecca and Astrid are still friends. Lorna Rose runs across to the fence and tells Astrid and Rebecca they should come and play on the court next to the one she and Zelda Howe are playing on, and then the winners of each game will play each other to find who out of the four of them is the best. Astrid looks at the court she and Rebecca are supposed to play on. Its surface is all pieces of broken glass. She is about to say no but Rebecca says yes. But look at the glass, Astrid says because it is insane. Coward, Zelda Howe says. We knew you wouldn't do it. They have put the broken glass there on purpose as a test. If you want to play on broken glass you're an idiot, Astrid tells Rebecca. Rebecca goes into the court and crunches about on the broken glass.
Ali Smith

About Ali Smith

Ali Smith - The Accidental

Photo © Sarah Wood

ALI SMITH is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including the novel Hotel World, which was short-listed for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Her story collections include Free Love, which won a Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award, and The Whole Story and Other Stories. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Smith lives in Cambridge, England.

Praise | Awards


“Astonishing. . . . Vivid and affecting. . . . Wonderfully supple, jazzy.” –The New York Times


“Persistently sparkling pages...of startling and clarifying emotional power. . . . It casts a spell.” —The Atlantic Monthly


“Completely captivating. . . . Thoroughly charming and melodic. . . .Devilishly lovely.” —The Boston Globe


“Beautifully executed. . . . A few pages [in] and you begin to remember how much fun it is to put yourself in the hands of a skilled, majestically confident writer. . . . Delightful.”

The New York Observer


“Brims with wit, humor, and energy.” —The Christian Science Monitor


WINNER 2005 Whitbread Novel Award
FINALIST 2005 Man Booker Prize
FINALIST 2006 Orange Prize
FINALIST James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

and a Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize Finalist

“Astonishing. . . . Vivid and affecting. . . . Wonderfully supple, jazzy.”
The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Ali Smith’s extraordinary novel, The Accidental, winner of Britain’s prestigious Whitbread award.

About the Guide

Unhappily ensconced in a substandard summer cottage in Norfolk, England, the Smart family is in a fragile, volatile condition. Eve Smart, author of the bestselling Genuine Articles, a series of semifictional accounts of historical figures, is suffering from writer’s block. Her husband, Michael, a professor of literature and seducer of students, is finding that his investment in womanizing is paying fewer dividends than before. Eve’s son from her first marriage, Magnus, is paralyzed by guilt for his part in a prank that led, unintentionally, to the suicide of a fellow student. And the quirky, angsty, twelve-year-old Astrid is obsessed with filming everything and resenting everyone.

Into this emotional tinderbox comes the bright flame of Amber MacDonald, a barefoot woman in her thirties who is both an outrageous liar and an outrageous truth-teller. Knowing none of the Smarts, she simply walks into their cottage and their lives and stays long enough to explode the thin veneer of normalcy the family has constructed to keep it going. Eve thinks she is one of Michael’s affairs. Michael thinks she is here to interview Eve. Astrid thinks she is her mother’s friend and is fascinated by her devil-may-care self-assurance and defiance of social convention. Magnus thinks she is an angel come to save him from suicide and deliver him into a new life of sexual bliss. Amber acts as a kind of emotional magnet, pulling each of the Smarts out of their comfort zones and into a dangerous territory where truth and fiction, denial and self-knowledge, habit and change are brought into high tension.

The questions the novel raises are persistent and profound. Why has Amber appeared among the Smarts? Was it an accident that she showed up at their door, or did they unconsciously summon her? Is her affect on them catastrophic or ultimately healing? What is it that holds families together, and what tears them apart?

Written largely in stream-of-consciousness that captures the most subtle emotional fluctuations and self-deceptions, The Accidental is a bracingly original and deeply unsettling tour de force by one of Britain’s rising literary stars.

About the Author

Ali Smith is the author of six works of fiction, including the novel Hotel World, which was short-listed for both the Orange and the Booker prizes in 2001 and won the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award in 2002. Her story collections include Free Love, which won the Saltire Society Scottish First Award, a Scottish First Book Award, and a Scottish Arts Council Award, and The Whole Story and Other Stories. Born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1962, Smith now lives in Cambridge, England.

Discussion Guides

1. Why has Ali Smith chosen The Accidental as her title? What accidents occur in the novel? Are these events really accidents? What are their consequences?

2. What effects does Smith create by telling the story through each family member’s point of view? How would the novel have been different if told through a single omniscient narrator?

3. In describing her Genuine Articles, Eve Smart claims that “fiction has the unique power of revealing something true” [p. 82]. How is it that fiction can often deliver deeper truths than nonfiction? What truths does The Accidental reveal?

4. Having dinner with his family, Magnus thinks that “Everybody at this table is in broken pieces which won’t go together, pieces which are nothing to do with each other, like they all come from different jigsaws, all muddled together into the one box by some assistant who couldn’t care less in a charity shop or wherever the place is that old jigsaws go to die” [p. 138]. In what ways are Astrid, Eve, Michael, and Magnus broken? What has broken each of them? Why don’t they fit together?

5. How does Smith capture the angst of early adolescence so vividly in the character of Astrid? What kind of girl is she? What are her most engaging eccentricities? Why does she feel so casually hostile toward the rest of her family? Why is she so captivated by Amber?

6. How is Amber so easily able to ingratiate herself with the Smarts? What makes her such a compelling person for all of them?

7. Amber often tells the truth so directly that she is thought to be joking, as when she comes down to dinner with Magnus announcing that she found him in the bathroom trying to hang himself. Everyone laughs but in fact she is telling exactly what happened. What is the significance of this irony—that the truth, plainly stated, is impossible for the Smarts to believe?

8. Who is Amber? Is she a con artist, a pathological liar, a psychic, a soothsayer, a malevolent force of nature, a witch, an angel? What profound effects, good and bad, does she have on each member of the Smart family?

9. Remembering Bergman’s films, Eve asks: “Did dark times naturally result in dark art?” [p. 178]. Do they? Is The Accidental itself a dark novel about a dark time? If so, how so?

10. Why has Smith chosen Smart as the name of the family in the novel? In what ways are they smart and not so smart?

11. Amber appears to bring catastrophe to the Smart family. In what ways could it be argued that she has been good for them? What do they discover about themselves because of her? Have the Smarts unconsciously drawn Amber to them?

12. Magnus tries hard to suppress his feelings about contributing to a fellow student’s suicide. He “understands that if he ever let it be known that he feels anything at all, things will fly apart, the whole room will disintegrate, as if detonated” [p. 151]. In what ways is this refusal to feel, to know and acknowledge painful truths, a central theme in The Accidental? Do things fly apart when Magnus begins to feel the consequences of his actions?

13. What does The Accidental say about family life? In what ways are the Smarts both a typical and an atypical family?

14. Why does Smith choose to end the novel with Eve’s journey to America? What is likely to happen in the future to the Smart family?

Suggested Readings

John Banville, The Sea; Julian Barnes, Arthur & George; Renate Dorrestein, A Heart of Stone; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov; Philip Roth, The Human Stain; Zadie Smith, On Beauty; Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata; Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.

  • The Accidental by Ali Smith
  • April 10, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $15.00
  • 9781400032181

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