When a Stranger Calls
By Ali Smith
Pantheon. 306 pp. $22.95
"Id est is long for i.e. or rather i.e. is short for id est," explains 12-year-old Astrid Smart in Ali Smith's spellbinding novel The Accidental , which won England's Whitbread Award for best novel last month. Astrid is almost as fond of saying " id est " as she is of making mini-documentaries on her very expensive digital video camera, which she uses to record the goings-on at the not-quite-as-nice-as-it-was-billed summer house she's sharing with her mother, brother and stepfather in Norfolk, in the rustic countryside north of London.
As they all discover, you can take a vacation from your job, your school or your friends -- but you can't take a vacation from your id, that murky province of the Freud-mapped psyche governed by primitive desires and unsavory impulses. The Smarts have big secrets. Astrid is being bullied at school, and her frustration is morphing into fury. Her teenage brother, Magnus, is so guilt-racked over the tragic result of a prank gone bad that he has convinced himself he is a monster and has privately condemned himself to death. Their stepfather, Michael, seems unaware that the role of the womanizing English professor is a hoary cliché and has thus cast himself in that role with abandon. And their mother, Eve, is still scratching at familial wounds inflicted during her childhood that have stunted her ability to connect with her husband and children.
Into this psychological briar patch strolls Amber, a blonde, brazen Rorschach blot of a houseguest who will profoundly shake up each family member before wearing out her welcome. She arrives one day, unannounced and very much uninvited, and immediately makes herself at home. Michael assumes that she is a journalist there to interview Eve about her best-selling books. Astrid guesses that she is a friend of the family. Eve sullenly figures that she is just an especially nervy student (and lover) of Michael's, though she is long past the point of feeling anything like jealousy. To be honest, Eve doesn't feel much of anything these days, save the constant, low-grade panic that accompanies her writer's block.
When Amber meets Magnus, who has reached the end of his figurative rope and tied a literal one around his neck, her countenance -- "very beautiful, a little rough-looking, like a beautiful used girl off an internet site" -- is enough to lull him down from his noose. Presented with this new reason to live, he rebounds; before long, Amber is regularly escorting him into the village for mid-day assignations in an empty church. Astrid, too, becomes enchanted with this mysterious, magnetic stranger who takes her into town for adventures at the grocery store, where Amber earns the scrutiny of security guards with her odd behavior and tests the loyalty of her much younger friend by intentionally destroying her video camera.
Turns out Amber doesn't like to have her picture taken. Or is it that her picture can't be taken? Amber is flippant, caustic and conniving, traits that make her recognizably, albeit unattractively, human. But throughout The Accidental , up until the very last words, Smith drops subtle and tantalizing hints that Amber may in fact be a projection of the Smarts' damaged psyches, a shared delusion whose purpose is to rattle them out of their torpor and compel them to act. For Magnus, a gawky math nerd, she clearly represents the promise of incipient sexuality. When Amber pays a scary visit to the bullying girls who have been tormenting poor Astrid at school, it leads ultimately to the rapprochement that Astrid seems incapable of effecting on her own.
Michael, whose extracurricular activities with female students are beginning to attract attention, is stunned to discover that -- try as he might -- he cannot picture himself having sex with Amber. On a train ride, doing his best to think lascivious thoughts of her, he is capable only of imagining her sitting opposite him, "looking out of the train window. She was examining her nails. She was examining the ends of her hair. She was reading a book in a language he didn't know." Despite the fact that she treats him with barely concealed contempt, or perhaps because of it, he has fallen deeply in love with Amber, and the introduction of true love in his life threatens to put an end to his Don Juan ways.
Speaking of Don Juan, did I mention that a fair chunk of Michael's interior monologue is written in ottava rima , the stanza used by Lord Byron in his epic poem about the legendary Spanish swordsman? (Other portions self-consciously evoke Shakespeare and e.e. cummings.) Smith's flights of fancy would grate if she weren't so nimble. But like the stream-of-consciousness she employs to describe each character's peculiar relationship to Amber, these aren't just literary gimmicks. When Michael slips into verse, Smith is revealing much more than her winning way with iambic pentameter. She's showing us how Michael sees his own tawdry situation: as epic, meaningful, worthy of commemoration. To illustrate Eve's style of writing -- she is famous for a series of biographies that imaginatively "extend" the lives of those who died before their time -- Smith has Eve tell the story of her life, and her own premature emotional death, using the same Q&A format as her books.
In winning the prestigious Whitbread, the Scottish-born, 43-year-old Smith beat out the likes of Salman Rushdie and Nick Hornby. Good for the judges. Smith is a dazzling talent, fearlessly lassoing different styles and ideas and playfully manipulating them. Though The Accidental is not a conventionally funny novel, readers may find themselves laughing -- in surprise and delight -- at the way Smith takes a literary trope and riffs on it until she's turned it inside out, the way a great jazz musician might. (When Amber obliquely tells the story of her childhood through the recitation of scenes from classic movies, the tour-de-force passage gets at the unique symbology of cinema in a way that eludes even our most erudite film critics.)
Upon returning to London, the Smarts are presented with evidence of Amber's existence -- which doesn't make her presence in their lives any less spectral, however. Like a mesmerizing image caught on camera and projected onto a screen, she has been both real and not real at the same time. Her ghost continues to reside in each family member long after she has disappeared, i.e., she'll be haunting them -- and readers -- for quite a while. ·
Jeff Turrentine is a Washington Post staff writer.