My Uncle Bobbie died just over a year ago. I’ve spent some time recently sorting through his old 78” records. He had a lovely singing voice in his day and for many years was a compere and singer at his local parish club. Unsurprisingly his old records reflect the music he most liked to sing: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole.
“Let there be cuckoos, a lark and a dove. But first of all please, let there be love.”
When you think about it, isn’t it strange that a love song should eulogise a cuckoo? A lark, a dove, I understand…songbird, symbol of peace. But the cuckoo? Seriously? It takes over other birds’ nests and kills their chicks: it’s a compulsive parasite.
Turns out that Amber, the main character in Ali Smith’s The Accidental, is something of a cuckoo herself. She swoops uninvited into the holiday home and lives of the Smart family. (If ever there was a family whose name did not match their emotional intelligence…)
This is the third novel I’ve read by Ali Smith. Hotel World (2001), was shortlisted for the Man Booker; How to be Both (2014), also shortlisted for the Man Booker, won the Costa Novel Award – I reviewed it in an earlier blog post; The Accidental (2005), again shortlisted for the Man Booker, won the Whitbread Novel of the Year (the predecessor of the Costa Novel Award). Ali, you’ll win the Booker prize some year!
But let’s get back to Amber. Smith’s name-choice is interesting in itself. Because what is Amber? A cautionary colour – that liminal space between green and red, between normality and impending danger. Something incredibly, unimaginably ancient. A spirit-purifier, absorbing negative or stagnant energies, stimulating the body to heal itself.
Amber has a cuckoo’s knack of diverting attention. None of the Smarts realise she’s not an invited guest, until it’s too late. The morning Amber arrives, Michael, who lets her in (“Sorry I’m late…Car broke down”), assumes she has an appointment with his partner, Eve, a writer. Astrid (Eve’s daughter) sees Amber lying in the sofa and surmises she’s “someone to do with the house, an oik from the village…one of Michael’s students.” Eve assumes she’s “something to do with Michael”. Magnus (Eve’s son) thinks she’s “an angel” – he is a teenage boy, after all, and Amber does interrupt/stop him mid-suicide attempt.
After some time, Eve susses Amber is an interloper and throws her out. And that’s when things begin to change. Which is entirely fitting, because Amber is not so much a character as a catalyst. She metaphorically shakes up the whole family – just as she had literally “physically shaken” Eve on her first evening at the house.
Amber is short for Alhambra, named after the cinema where she was conceived not the palace. Possibly the conflation of palace and cinema offers an insight. After all, there aren’t any cinemas called Buckingham, or St James’s, or Winter (at least not to my knowledge). But Alhambra palace is special, built as a ‘paradise on earth’, in the same way as cinemas, at their height, were dream-palaces, opulently designed – and named – to make ordinary people feel like royalty. Amber is “everything you ever dreamed”, a description that is clearly open to interpretation. As the message on my coaster says: live your dreams, except the one about being eaten by a giant spider.
So, back to the cuckoo. In Greek mythology, the god Zeus transformed himself into a cuckoo so that he could seduce the goddess Hera. As we can be seduced by the magic of cinema. As Amber seduces the Smarts.
If that seems a bit contrived, like a snake eating its own tail, that’s because, well, so is The Accidental. It’s an idea without a resolution – but interesting, nevertheless. And maybe that’s entirely fitting, too. Can people, families, ever tie up all loose ends neatly? Can we do anything more than muddle along together?
Rating: *** Highly recommended.