New fiction

Finds and flops

By Joseph O'Neil

The ordinarily attentive reader can be forgiven for having lost Ali Smith in the fireworks of publicity accorded her near-homonymous compatriots Monica Ali and Zadie Smith. But now, with the publication of (Ali) Smith's bewitching third novel (which, like her second, Hotel World, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), there can be no mistaking her talent for anyone else's—and theirs, at the risk of being invidious, may often seem squiblike by comparison with what's on offer in these persistently sparkling pages.

The central idea of The Accidental is a familiar one (familiar, certainly, to anyone recalling Pasolini's Theorem, starring Terence Stamp, whose name appears on the book's first page): family succumbs to magical charms of irresistible stranger and is forever changed. Thus the Smarts, a foursome washed up in a miserable Norfolk summer rental and, more especially, on separate islets of middle-class unhappiness, by accident take into their midst Amber, or Alhambra—a peculiarly beautiful thirtysomething vagabond, supernatural in her perceptiveness and psychosexual prowess, who acts as an "exotic fixative" for philandering dad, self-trapping mom, and fucked-up kids. By summer's end the family Smart, though of course not finally cured of its difficulties, is at least no longer marooned in them; a fable of escape and renewal has been miraculously enacted.

The real story, though, is the language. In a narrative that alternates between the characters' viewpoints—twelve-year-old Astrid, a kind of junior Lydia Davis, is a particularly wonderful voice—Smith maintains a playful, poetic idiom of startling and clarifying emotional power, so that the prose, in its logical beauty and its surprisingness, serves as an analogue of the enchantment dispensed by Amber. It's an enormous technical accomplishment that reminds us of the difference between linguistic hocus-pocus and real writing; more important, it casts a spell.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/01/new-fiction/304517/