Thursday, August 03, 2006

Review of 'The Accidental', by Ali Smith (2005)

How would you react if someone showed you the truth of your life, as it really is? What would you be grateful to be common knowledge? What would you want to hide?

2005 Booker Prize winner ‘The Accidental’ is brilliantly written. Each of the family members takes turns in narrating sections of the book, often narrating the same incidents from their own perspective and wonderfully controlling the release of important details. As the book progresses, the other characters’ voices are illuminated as the other family members add their voices to the mosaic of stories already told. All this makes the story much more real than a more straightforward approach might have had. The voice of 12-year old Astrid is particularly brilliant.

And so to the plot. Essentially, the four members of the Smart family are on holiday to the Norfolk countryside, when they are interrupted by the appearance of a strange angel/demon-like character called Amber. Through her dealings with the family, and through her brash truthfulness at all times, Amber highlights the latent characteristics and qualities of the individual family members. In so doing, she forces them to face up to the truth about themselves. Each character is on the edge of a crisis as the book opens; the novel shows how being shown the truth by Amber affects the family, as individuals and as a unit, as the half-truths and lies that the family members tell each other (and themselves) are exposed. In fact, issues of truth dominate the book – it is surely no coincidence that the whole episode is played out over the beginnings of the war in Iraq and all of the questions about knowing the truth, and confusion and spin it raised in people’s minds.

Coming home from their holiday (and having rid themselves of Amber), the Smarts are given an opportunity to start again. Each of the family members is given a ‘freedom’ of sort – freedom from boredom, from being unable to speak of guilty secrets weighing on the conscience, and from pressure from others to act in a certain way. Yet it is at this very point where the family’s lives crashes even further down and apart as their actions finally find them out.

This novel is possibly one of the best articulations of feeling many of us have in thinking about ‘truth’ in a post-modern period. The public erosion of ‘truth’ is shown to be deeply dissatisfying. At some levels, we crave to know the truth and we want the truth to be known. We long to know the truth about Iraq. Did Tony Blair really believe there were weapons of mass destruction? Were we really told the truth in the run up to the invasion of Iraq? We long to know the truth. Likewise, 17-year old Magnus longs to be able to articulate the guilt he is feeling over the role that he played leading to the suicide of a classmate. Only articulating and facing the truth can enable him to look ahead.

Yet, the novel shows that we have a fickle relationship to truth. We long to know the truth, yet we are terrified by it. Like the Smart family, we have skeletons in our closet that we are sure will shame and expose us if they are allowed to emerge. And so our innate longing for truth is juxtaposed against the untruthfulness we portray about ourselves to ourselves and others.

Perhaps the most powerful section of the book is where Magnus looks at the truth of his own broken life and then realises that the truth is that the whole world is broken in the same way:

Magnus remembers himself that night, a broken boy on the ground. His mother, broken. Michael, broken. Magnus's father, his real father, so broken a piece of the shape of things that, say he were walking past Magnus, his son, sitting in the corroded bus shelter of this village, right now, Magnus wouldn't recognise him. He wouldn't recognise Magnus. Everyone is broken. The man who has the restaurant, he's a broken man. Magnus remembers his shouting. Those two painters, they're broken, though you can't always tell by just looking. They must be, since Magnus knows everybody in the whole world is. The people talking on all the millions of tvs in the world are all broken, though they seem whole enough. The tyrants are as broken as the people they broke. The people being shot or bombed or burned are broken. The people doing the shooting or the bombing or the burning are equally broken. All those girls on the world wide web being endlessly broken in mundane-looking rooms on the internet. All those people dialling them up to have a look at them are broken too. Doesn't matter. All the people who know in the world, all the people who don't know in the world. It's all a kind of broken, the knowing, the not-knowing.

Christianity speaks to the Magnuses of the world in a realistic way, unlike other religions and philosophies where we must pretend we are generally nice and generally whole people. Indeed, Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” [John 8:32]. As a Christian, I find it a simple and profound thing that the God that I worship knows exactly what I am like in my twistedness and shame and brokenness. I do not have to pull the wool over his eyes – as Psalm 44:20-21 puts it,

‘If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?’

The omniscient God of the Bible knows our most shocking secrets – we cannot and we do not have to pretend any more. Yet it’s at this very moment – in our sinfulness – that God saw us and sent the Son to die for us, giving us exactly what we need, as Romans 5:8 gloriously shows us:

But God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

It is only when we face the truth of sinfulness and brokenness, and when we see ourselves as God sees us, as we really are, that we can be truly set free, resting in God's grace and knowing we haven't earned his approval. This is what the Smart family craved, and what many in society crave too.

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