George Saunders was the bookies’ favourite but Ali Smith led the pack as far as sales of her book. I’m talking about two of the authors shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, whose winner was, indeed, Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo.
If I had the money – which I don’t, being a penniless scribe – I would have bet on Smith, partly because she’s Scottish – I like the Scots – and partly because she’s been shortlisted so many times (and won so many prizes) she really does seem due for a Booker.
If they gave awards just for being shortlisted (which they do, actually), Smith would have a fistful. Hotel World (2001) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize. Four years later The Accidental was shortlisted for the Orange, the Booker, and the Whitbread Novel of the Year (which it won). In 2007, Girl Meets Boy won the Scottish Arts Council Novel of the Year (as did Hotel World) and in 2012, Artful was shortlisted for the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize. Two years later How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker, the Folio Prize, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and, again, the Goldsmiths. It won the Bailey’s and the Goldsmiths. And now, with Autumn, she’s once again on the shortlist for the Booker.
As I said, she’s due.
Out of all these books, the one that’s made it into my copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is The Accidental, a postmodern tale likely based on Teorema, a 1968 Italian art-house film written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. No – please – come back! Words like “postmodern” scare the bejeezus out of me, too, and I think the last time I saw an art-house film I was wearing platform shoes and a headband.
In the film, a typical bourgeois Italian family is visited by a mysterious stranger, played by Terence Stamp. The stranger proceeds to seduce every member of the family, including the maid, and then leaves as suddenly and mysteriously as he arrived. In the void created by his departure, the others are forced to confront the uncomfortable reality of their lives. The maid becomes a saint; the mother seeks out affairs with younger men; the son abandons the family to become an artist; the daughter sinks into a catatonic state. And the father, after giving away all his worldly possessions, walks naked into the desert.
Smith’s tale is less dramatic but the basic premise is similar. Four members of the Smart family have rented a run-down holiday cottage in a run-down village in Norfolk: “They had driven, on their way here, past repetitions of repetitions of brown-brick Victorian semis and terraces, houses and shops like extras from a post-war kitchen-sink drama, houses brown as decrepit dogs and so on their last legs that someone should take them in hand and have them humanely put to sleep.”
Eve, the mother, is upset at the state of the house – it wasn’t that way in the brochure. She’s come hoping to spend the summer working on a book but has found herself with writer’s block, unable to work. And so she spends her days lying on the floor of her studio, leaving strict orders that she’s not to be disturbed.
Astrid, her 12-year-old daughter, thinks the house is disgusting, but, being 12, she thinks just about everything and everybody is disgusting. She goes about each day with her brand new camera, filming every detail, as if to prove she exists. Everything is “typical” and “ironic”. The village is a dump. The house is substandard. Nothing, Astrid believes, is going to happen the entire substandard summer.
The other occupants of the house are Michael, Astrid’s step-father; Magnus, her older brother, and Katrina, the woman from the village who comes in to clean. Michael is a smug, lecherous university professor who makes a habit of bedding his female students. He has a routine: “He liked to give the little speech about Agape and Eros. He liked to tell the story, how he had admired her in class …” Etc., etc. When his latest conquest plunges into the act with no preamble, he feels vaguely cheated.
Magnus, the 17-year-old brother, is a math and computer whiz who, on a lark, took part in a prank that resulted in the suicide of a fellow student. He feels deeply guilty; in his depression he refuses to eat with the others … refuses to bathe … refuses to come out of his room. Having broken someone, he sees himself and his entire family as broken. Over and over again he recites the details of the prank: “They took her head. They put it on a different body. They sent it to people. Then she killed herself.”
The stranger who intrudes into this conventionally unhappy family is an attractive 30-something transient who claims her car has broken down. She calls herself Amber; she may also (though we don’t know for sure) be someone named Alhambra who makes an appearance at the beginning of the book and whose voice is heard from time to time. Eve assumes Amber is one of Michael’s student girlfriends – he thinks she’s come to interview his wife. They invite her to stay for dinner. She stays – and stays. She eats with them, engages them in conversation, and challenges the way they look at the world. Bit by bit she proceeds to unravel their lives.
Michael, being Michael, falls in love with her. Commuting back from London, he realizes he’s completely besotted with her: “Epiphany! dear God it was an epiphany! the empty seat filled with nothing but goodness was a holy moment! and on a filthy train crossing the filthy fens!” His feelings are not reciprocated; Amber has nothing but contempt for Michael, as does the reader – which isn’t to say he’s not well-drawn. Reading Michael, you feel sure Smith has run into more than one Michael Smart in her lifetime. They are legion, after all.
Astrid adores Amber. They go on long walks together, and do daring things like facing down the village bullies and pretending to shoplift. At one point, Amber takes Astrid’s camera and drops it from the top of a bridge, providing a forceful if rather mean lesson on the nature of “seeing”.
As for Magnus, Amber first saves him from hanging himself and then takes it upon herself to heal him by initiating him into the mysteries of sex. They have sex in the loft, sex in the garden, and eventually sex in the village church. Taking communion, so to speak. Everyone, he feels, is still broken, but Amber is possibly less broken than others: “If Amber is a piece of broken-up jigsaw, too, Magnus thinks, then she is several pieces of blue sky still joined up. Maybe she is a whole surviving connected sky.”
When Amber isn’t physically seducing family members, she’s charming them by saying exactly what she thinks. This, we gather, is never done in conventional middle-class families. When Eve relates a rather innocuous tale of how she met her first husband, Amber lashes out in frustration:
“Is that it? Amber said. Is that the highpoint, the true-blue, the secret-can’t-be-told everything-must-go ultimate all-singing all-dancing story-of-you? Jesus God you’re going to have to tell me something more interesting than that or I’m going to fucking fall asleep right here at the wheel.”
Smith is at her best in these moments – when she’s giving us these quirky, sharply observed portraits of characters so real, so believeable, you’d know them in the street. I’m sure I went to school with Astrid – I may possibly have been Astrid at some point when I was young.
I’m not so sure about the rest of the story. As much as I believe Smith is incapable of writing a poorly crafted sentence, I can’t help feeling she’s having a little fun at our expense. It’s like going out for drinks with the smartest girl in the office, laughing at the jokes she makes, and realizing afterwards that the joke was on you.