The Accidental – Ali Smith

Book #13a

Reviewer: NAOMI, OF CREATE-BELIEVE-DREAM


This was one of my stand out reads for the year (one of the others being There But For The, also by Ali Smith) so this is a review I’ve really been looking forward to writing. The Accidental is written with wit and originality, has varied and complex characters and an engaging and surprising plot – contemporary fiction at its best. Shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize, it won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005, the year every man and their blog had this as a must read or book of the year.

Set in Norfolk where the aptly named Smart family are taking their summer holiday together, it’s a study of how chance can affect the lives of ordinary people. The family in question consist of mother Eve, step-father Michael, teenage son Magnus and pre-teen daughter Astrid. Each of their lives are pulled apart and put back together again in an almost unrecognisable way by Amber, an unexpected houseguest.

The Smart family are on the surface a somewhat smug, tight unit, however underneath all is not as it should be. Each character is struggling in some way whether it is from guilt, boredom, insecurity or total lack of direction. Amber’s arrival is the catalyst for change and throughout the journey of the novel the reader sees the impact that this change has on the character of each of the family members. At play here are also factors like the power of assumption and the ease with which people can be unwittingly manipulated and controlled. What I found interesting was that although Amber is not necessarily a ‘good’ person, all of the characters are changed for the better from having come in contact with her.

Ali Smith is a writer who obviously loves writing – this may seem like a rather redundant statement, but by it I mean that from reading her work, you gain an appreciation of the technique of good writing, and that the telling of stories and the way in which we do this seems to be a consistent theme of her work. The Accidental begins with a page of quotations from John Berger, Nick Cohen, Jane Austen, Sophocles and Charlie Chaplin. These quotes allude to the themes of the book, some of which are accident, history, and storytelling.

This book is divided into three main sections entitled ‘the Beginning’, ‘the Middle’ and ‘the End’ in which all five characters have their say. Michael is a professor and poet who specialises in the sonnet form and his entire Middle section of the book is a sonnet cycle which I found both charming and incredibly clever. Eve is also a writer who writes fictional interviews with famous or infamous people who are no longer living. Much of her dialogue with herself is conducted in a question and answer form, another clever writerly technique.

The narrative of the book is mostly driven by internal monologues from each character so as a reader you experience the course of events from four vastly different perspectives. As a consequence the book is more driven by character than plot, and as a person who enjoys reading from this perspective I found it intensely satisfying. That is not to say however that the plot is light or weak. I definitely didn’t see the clever twists at the end of the novel coming and they gave the novel an almost a circular feeling that paralleled the beginning, middle, end form neatly.

I felt that this is book deserving of its place on the list in light of how rich, unique and incredibly well written it is, and I urge you to read it.

White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Book #54

Reviewer: Inspirational Reads

Archie and Samad are the unlikeliest of friends. Archie is white, middle-class,with a lean towards insipidness. Samad is a Muslim, devout in his beliefs and sensitive to how foreign his race and religion make him. Meeting during World War 2, the story follows the two men and their friendship through marriage, children and life post-WW2 onwards in North London, England.

The characters and situations that Smith creates are so colourful and creative in their conception. Archie is left by his first wife and hits rock bottom, and at this time meets his soon to be second-wife; the tall, beautiful, toothless Jamaican-born Clara. And Samad has an arranged marriage which produces twin boys, as opposite in nature as they are similar in looks. Smith also looks back in the lives of both Archie and Samad, at how they came to be where they are and where they go with the advent of their offspring and the subsequent joys and disappointments that parenthood inevitably brings.

On paper, this book sounds like it has it all. A wide range of kooky characters and cultures; interesting story lines, particularly the coming-of-age stories of the children; and White’s writing itself is fun and vigorous, with a colloquial familiarity even though it is set in a time and place I am completely unfamiliar with. I really wanted to like this book but when I finished and put it down, I felt oddly disappointed.

It took a while for me to pinpoint what it was that I didn’t like about this book and what it came down to was that the characters were flat, unrelatable and frankly unlikeable. Yes, I liked the idea of the coming-of-age of the children but they never felt like they progressed. And this is the same for Archie and Samad. There was no growth in their characters despite the big changes happening around them. And the characters which I did feel mild warmth for, Clara and Clara and Archie’s daughter Irie, were disapointing in their diminishment in the latter half of the novel; diminishment in both character development and appearance. The reader is privy to their thoughts and emotions but it felt like despite this I had no understanding of their motivations or their actions.

When I think of this book, I think of vibrancy and energy. It was entertaining and there is a lot to admire about it. But in the end, oddly drawn characters in what is essentially a character-driven novel made it feel hollow and flat. I am still keen to try Smith’s other list book On Beauty, but it is quite far down an enormous TBR list.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

Book #19

Reviewer: Inspirational Reads

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

This improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

This quirky novel is one told in first person perspective, being that of a 15 year old boy named Christopher who has an Apergers Syndrome type condition.  He wakes one morning to find his neighbour’s dog has been killed and he sets out to investigate what happened.  This is a mystery and Christopher is the most unique of detectives, with highly detailed observations including diagrams.  Oh, and lets not forget that the chapters are in ordered prime numbers.

Those expecting a traditional whodunnit mystery may be slightly disappointed.  The mystery is the vehicle in which we become familiar with Christopher’s thoughts, his life and his relationships in it.  And it is this insight which makes this novel fascinating and a highly enjoyable read.  Christopher is so knowledgeable about so many different things but as we would expect, he is less than aware when it comes to personal relationships.  Especially that with his father who has recently separated from his mother, the stress of a high needs child being too much for their marriage.  The reader is aware of something that Christopher is not – how desperately his father loves him and all that he does to try and elicit this emotion from his son.  I found this the most poignant and saddest part of the tale, but it is also what elevated it beyond a showcase of Christopher’s savant abilities and entertaining musings.

I was interested to read that although the author Mark Haddon had previously worked with disabled children, he has stated that he knows very little on the subject and did no research.  Christopher’s voice is so clear and unflinching that his character never felt contrived.  I have not had any experience in dealing with anyone who has autism or Aspergers, but general consensus is that Haddon achieved a realistic portrayal despite he himself recommending reading work by autistic authors for a true account.

Although written for an adult audience, Haddon’s publishers recommended marketing it to both adults and children.  Before learning of this, I passed it on to my 11 year old to read (he gets to cross one off the 1001 list!) and he too thoroughly enjoyed it.  Yes, you do discover along with Christopher what happened to the dog in a not too surprising reveal but this story is so much more than this curious incident.  This is a quick, surprisingly emotional read, one that I highly recommend.