The day starts now

Eleanor Birne

  • The Accidental by Ali Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 306 pp, £14.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 241 14190 7

All three of Ali Smith’s novels are set in holiday places. In Like (1997), Amy Shone and her daughter Kate live on a caravan site in Scotland; the characters of Hotel World (2001) are guests and workers at the Global Hotel in an unnamed city; in The Accidental, the new book, the Smart family are spending their summer in a mock-Tudor holiday house near the Norfolk Broads. Caravan sites, hotels and holiday houses: the people in them don’t quite fit. A schoolfriend’s mother ‘isn’t at all sure about Kate Shone. She’s not sure that she likes her coming round all the time, this is what she tells her husband after the Shones leave. They live on a caravan site.’ Kate draws pictures of her dream house in crayon: ‘a flat square house with four windows and a chimney’. The people at the Global are isolated from the world inside their hotel bubble. And the Smart family are exiled from the comforts of Islington, stranded in a ‘substandard’ holiday house in the strange flat lands of East Anglia. Smith lifts her characters out of society and forces them into an isolation where anything can happen, and they have strange encounters. In Like, Kate meets her grandparents for the first time; in Hotel World, the guests and workers discover each other; The Accidental is about the impact of an intruder on a family.

These are comprehensible repetitions and correspondences. But there are odder ones. Smith is interested in clocks and stopped watches. In Hotel World the hands of Sara the chambermaid’s watch are stuck at ten to two – that visually pleasing moment chosen to make a new watch look most appealing – so she takes it to the menders. In Like, Kate sees a row of watches hung on the wall under the sink in her mother’s old room: ‘There are five altogether and they have their hands stopped at different times.’ Time can stop, or it can move unexpectedly fast. Lise, a receptionist at the Global, watches the minutes click by on the digital clock. She is ‘waiting for the next predictable point in the sequence; the time for her to go home’. But time can be unreliable: three minutes go by without her even noticing. ‘Time is notoriously deceptive,’ Lise says. ‘Everybody knows this (though it is one of the easier things to forget).’ In The Accidental, Amber’s watch is stopped at seven o’clock. When asked why she wears it, she says: ‘To keep an eye on the time.’ But, the questioner continues, ‘it’s always the wrong time.’ ‘That’s what you think,’ Amber says. For her – the intruder around whom the whole book revolves – it’s always the right time: a mysterious, magical seven.

If time doesn’t necessarily move in straight lines, neither do Smith’s narratives. She has given The Accidental three sections of equal length, labelled ‘The Beginning’, ‘The Middle’ and ‘The End’. The first opens with 12-year-old Astrid’s meditation on beginnings. The heading is also the first two words of the first sentence, so you read: ‘The beginning’ – then turn the page – ‘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?’ Smith plunges us into her narrative mid-stream. A less imaginative novelist describing a summer away might choose to show the family closing up their London house, packing up the car, driving it down the motorway; Smith opens with them already an arbitrary ‘nine dawns’ into their Norfolk summer. We are thrown into the middle of Astrid’s early morning stream of consciousness, left to find our own bearings. The self-conscious opening recalls Hotel World, where a dead chambermaid speaks from beyond the grave: ‘Here’s the story; it starts at the end.’ Smith uses the same sort of trick in ‘The Universal Story’, the first story in The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003), which begins: ‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no, okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.’

After the various false starts of The Accidental, it gradually becomes possible to establish what’s going on. The Smart family is unhappy. Eve Smart, 42, is the author of a series of popular history books – ‘Genuine Articles’ – each of which takes the ‘ordinary life of a living person who died before his or her time in the Second World War and gives him or her a voice’. They have been a great success for a small publisher called Jupiter Press (the latest title has sold 40,000 copies this spring alone), hastening its acquisition by HarperCollins. Eve’s irritating editor, Amanda Farley-Brown, is crossing her fingers that Richard and Judy will feature a Genuine. But Eve is blocked, unable to begin work on the next book, and has decamped to a holiday house in Norfolk for a change of scene and to get away from dead people’s relations, taking her husband and two children with her. ‘Every night at six she came out of the shed, went back into the main house and changed, and ate as if a day’s work had been done and everybody’s summer wasn’t being wasted in a Norfolk hell-hole.’ Michael, her husband and the children’s stepfather, is a university lecturer, who plans to spend the summer having illicit sex whenever possible with his latest favourite student, Philippa Knott, whose mobile number he keyed into his phone before the end of term (‘Good dress sense, almost totally straight-A in her accumulative writtens for continual assessment’). Eve’s son, Magnus, refuses to leave his room even to eat with the others, and is curiously afraid of the bathroom. It emerges that he is partly responsible for the suicide of a girl at school, though he has told nobody. She was the subject of a pornographic email which was circulated round the school; he showed his friends how to do the Photoshop work on it. ‘They took her head. They put it on a different body. They sent it to people. Then she killed herself.’ Astrid, Eve’s daughter, who is bullied at school, is addicted to videoing the world: she likes to hide behind a lens. Michael’s verdict on them is straightforward: ‘Both Eve’s children needed therapy.’

The four of them are stuck in their private hell when Amber walks in. Michael thinks she is something to do with Eve; Eve assumes she is Michael’s latest ‘student’. They invite her to stay to dinner. Suddenly, the scene is transformed. Michael prepares a feast; they gather at the table. After dinner, Astrid ‘cleared the plates and shared jokes with Eve like a normal daughter’; Magnus had ‘even gone through voluntarily, like in the old days, to help Michael with the washing up’. And afterwards ‘Magnus had said goodnight like he used to. Astrid had kissed Eve goodnight. Michael had kissed Eve’s back, between her shoulders.’ Amber is here to stay, and she takes Astrid on jaunts to the supermarket to play tricks on the CCTV system; in an attempt to get Astrid to reconnect with the world, Amber throws her Sony digital recorder off the footbridge over the A14 (Astrid’s anger passes when she realises she is acting angrily because she thinks she ought to). Amber interrupts Magnus trying to hang himself and bathes him and washes his hair. In the weeks that follow, she has sex with him in the village church. She tells Eve that she is a fraud and she resists Michael’s advances – he is besotted with her. Then, one day, Eve tells her to leave and she does, vanishing into nowhere. She has mastered the art of ‘how to disappear, how not to exist’.

At the end of the summer, the family return to their London townhouse to find the place has been emptied. Everything has been stolen, even the doorknobs. It is the doorknobs that make Eve cry:

They were arts and crafts, she was saying. She kept saying it, like an insane person. The doorknobs were arts and crafts.

It was doorknobs that were the end for her. The end is presumably different for everybody. Astrid thinks now that this is rather a disgusting end, doorknobs. It’s the end, her mother kept saying after that. The absolute end.

After the purge, everything is different. When Astrid gets back to school she confronts the girls who have been bullying her; gradually she becomes friends with them. She also discovers that she doesn’t need the letters from her father to her mother which she had hidden under her bed and were stolen along with everything else (‘It is a relief not to always have to be thinking about them or wondering what the story is or was’). Magnus finds himself back in the house with nothing to do but look for answers from the Ask Jeeves search engine: ‘Where has Amber gone?’ he types. Then he deletes all the porn from his computer. It is a grim time for Michael, who discovers that one of the students he slept with is taking legal action against him. He has been suspended from his job. And Amber has stolen his heart. Eve finds herself unable to leave the holiday state behind. She decides to prolong it: ‘Eve had taken a gap year from her own history. She had been walking down the road in London and had seen a poster-sized advert in a student travel office window.’ She travels to America, where she finds herself taking on Amber’s role, intruding in a middle-class family house. Given food and clean towels and escorted to a guest room past photographs of troubled-looking family members, Eve decides to sleep in the car, like Amber.

Smith has always been interested in stories for their own sake. She has returned to short stories after each novel, and may be more of a natural short-story writer than a novelist. Her novels are made up of incomplete fragments; different points of view. ‘Being Quick’ in The Whole Story and Other Stories describes a woman stranded on a broken-down train who decides to get off and spend the night walking home down the tracks. Then the story skips to her partner, alone in their house, anxiously phoning her mobile, getting no reply, thinking she is dead, promising to become a Catholic again if only she is returned home safe. The two versions of the same story are left unreconciled. Like is divided into two parts – the first section devoted to Amy and Kate, the second to Ash, Amy’s old friend who she no longer sees. The two narratives remain separate, like the characters. Hotel World is divided into six sections, each in a different tense: past (narrated by a dead girl); present historic (narrated by a homeless girl who sleeps opposite the hotel); future conditional (narrated by Lise, the receptionist, who is ill in bed); perfect (narrated by a journalist staying at the hotel); future in the past (narrated by the dead girl’s sister who returns to the hotel one evening to look down the dumb waiter chute where her sister died); present (which describes various people in the city starting on their mornings, settling on the girl in the watch shop who now wears Sara’s mended Sekonda on her wrist). In Hotel World, each character has one section and does not speak again; in The Accidental, each character is given three sections, one in each part of the book. Hotel World makes use of different time frames; in The Accidental the Smart family story is punctuated by a series of monologues that put their summer in context. Alhambra (who, we assume, is Amber), a woman conceived in the café of an old cinema whose mother ‘was a nun who could no longer stand the convent’ who married the captain who was ‘very strict’, provides a whistle-stop history of the last century through film references and quotations. Her accounts disrupt the Smart family ‘summer of love’ narrative, and also contain it within a wider, kaleidoscopic world of popular culture.

Smith once said in an interview that she is drawn to the short story because ‘every word counts’, but the same can be said of her novels. Smith’s writing is at its most startling when she is writing through the eyes of young girls. She excels at the child’s-eye view and uses it to show the adults in a new light. ‘It is funny how Amy is speaking in a new sort of way,’ Kate observes in Like, on the train going to her rich grandparents’ house. ‘Kate could hear she sounded like she was putting on a voice.’ The penultimate section of Hotel World is narrated by the dead girl’s younger sister, and the entire 36-page section is written without a full stop or comma, with just the odd line break or blank gap in the sentence to indicate a pause. It is breathtaking:

& since there was that day when you pulled my hair really hard
& since you got into real trouble when mum brushed my hair & it all came out in a big clump on the brush
& since it hasn’t ever grown back properly there since then
& since you could swear better than anybody
& since you covered my arm in bruises since I told you about swearing

Magnus, a mathematician, who with the death of his classmate finds that the world around him is tilting out of control, tries to balance things out by thinking in terms of arithmetical signs and tested formulae. His near-suicide becomes an experiment about sag and weight:

Conduct an experiment to discover how a beam will progressively sag with a loading upon it where m = the load in tonnes, where n = the sag in mm. He takes one foot off the edge of the bath. He holds it in the air. He should say a prayer. Now I lay me down to sleep. He is shaking. He puts the foot carefully back on the edge again.

For Magnus, ‘Amber = angel’. ‘His mother = small bird blinded by sunlight into forgetting it’s still in a cage’. When he has sex with Amber, he thinks of it in terms of ‘the Jordan Curve Theorem. Every simple closed curve has an inside as well as an outside. Amber’s bare breasts hanging down above his head were two perfect bell curves.’ Michael Smart’s lovesickness for Amber causes him to embark on a series of sonnets written in her honour – so Smith dedicates a section to these:

Were Amber’s eyes anything like the sun?
Listen, they overexposed him like a Lee
Miller/Man Ray solarisation.
He glowed the moment he was looked at.

Part of Eve’s first section is told in a question and answer format, mimicking the method of her history books. The characters are from the same family, but in their preoccupations and their use of language, they are from different worlds.

With her sending up of linear forms, her undermining of beginnings, her use of in-between locations, her interest in wanderers and vagrants and accidental and premature death, her reliance on familiar motifs like stopped watches, Smith seems always to be telling versions of the same story. Things do not progress neatly; they circle and return. But the writing is fresh and unexpected each time. Smith has a delicate way with revivified cliché, giving even the most overused phrases new meaning. Astrid walks into a supermarket and wonders about things the way only Astrid can:

Tasting is believing! a sign above the apples says. Another one says how good the supermarket is at selling really fresh fruit. Imagine if it wasn’t fresh. Imagine if they were all old and manked, all these rows and rows of apples and oranges and nectarines and peaches. Would the sign still say fresh or would it say old and manked?

Smith trains the reader not to concern herself with questions like: will Amber sleep with Michael? Will Magnus kill himself? It’s what happens on the way that counts.