Saturday, May 30, 2009

the last book I read

The Accidental by Ali Smith.

The Smart family are on holiday in a rented cottage in Norfolk. There's Eve, successful writer of pseudo-historical fiction but currently having something of a crisis with writer's block, her husband Michael, university lecturer and serial shagger of his female students (which he assumes Eve doesn't know about, though in fact she does), precocious 12-year-old daughter Astrid, who spends most of her time wandering around filming things with her video camera, and withdrawn 17-year-old son Magnus (like Astrid, Eve's child from her first marriage), who is harbouring a terrible secret - he was involved in an e-mail prank at his school which prompted the butt of the joke (some faked nude pictures) to hang herself.

Their holiday is disturbed by the arrival of Amber, a hippy-ish blonde thirtysomething whose car has apparently broken down nearby, and who immediately begins to exert a strange influence over the whole family. No sooner have they invited her to stay (or, rather, been unable to do anything as direct and confrontational as ask her to leave) than she has destroyed Astrid's camera and popped Magnus' cherry for him (shortly after dissuading him from hanging himself in the bathroom). Both Eve and Michael seem to have fallen in love with her in their own ways, as well.

Eventually there is a confrontation, and Amber leaves. When the Smarts return home they find that their house has been burgled (we're led to understand that Amber had a hand in this), and that Michael's latest indiscretions with his tutorial students have caught up with him. Michael has what seems to be some sort of breakdown, and Eve jets off on a promotional book tour that turns into an extended flight from reality (and her family).

The enigmatic stranger gatecrashing the family gathering and bringing all sorts of repressed stuff bubbling to the surface is a well-worn plot device, including in a previous entry in this list, and also in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1968 film Theorem, which mirrors the plot of this book quite closely.

I was left slightly meh by the whole thing, though. It's odd that the first half of the book (in Norfolk) focuses heavily on Astrid and Magnus, and then the second half focuses more on Michael and Eve, just when you'd started to stop caring about them. Amber's background and motivation are almost non-existent; we're invited to assume that the majority of what we do get is fictitious anyway (well, obviously it's fictitious - this is a novel after all - but I mean made up by Amber, i.e. fictitious within fictitious). And Eve's behaviour at the end of the book, though providing a nice circular ending in the way it mirrors Amber's first appearance, seems a bit unlikely. Having said all that it's entertaining enough, easy to read, and takes some interesting liberties with structure and narrative voice (although it's all third-person, each chapter is narrated from the viewpoint of a different character, with no immediate clues as to which one it is).

And now the awards bit - The Accidental won the Whitbread Novel Award (now the Costa Novel Award) in 2005. My list (for the novel award, not the overall Book Of The Year Award) goes like this: 1977, 1980, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006; also the First Novel Award winners from 1982, 1990, 1996 and 1998. Wikipedia doesn't provide a handy list of the novel award winners, so I had to get it here.

Following on from the brief but entertaining discussion about typesetting and related topics last time, here's a quick survey - lines per page in books in this list, all B-format paperbacks.
So Independence Day has exactly 50% more lines per page than, say, On Chesil Beach. And that's not considering the number of words per line, which would be proportionately higher as well, what with the print being smaller. The same proportion? Who knows? I could probably find out, but, well, you know.


Emma said...

I read 'The Accidental' a year or so ago. Was left unsure whether Amber herself was supposed to have been completely a figment of the imagination. I also didn’t quite work out the significance of the photograph at the beginning of my edition of a sheep standing behind a barbed wire fence.

electrichalibut said...

My copy has the sheep as well. It's obviously all Highly Significant, but I'm not sure of what, since I don't recall any actual sheep putting in an appearance during the story, unless I missed that bit.