- Feminism, Film, and the FantasticAn "Unnaturalizing" Reading of Ali Smith's The Accidental
Ali Smith's intricately composed novel The Accidental (2005) can disclose both how useful unnatural narrative theory can be in examining an important feminist text and how feminism can provide an ideological undergirding to unnatural studies. Smith's novel is divided into three main sections titled "The Beginning," "The Middle," and "The End," each containing four narrative segments focalized through the perspectives of the Smart family members: the daughter, Astrid (age twelve); the son, Magnus (age sixteen); the step-father, Michael; and the mother, Eve. While the family is on summer holiday in Norfolk, a mysterious woman named Amber appears unexpectedly at the rental house, takes up residence there uninvited, and acts as a catalyst to change each member of the family. An agent of defamiliarization, Amber challenges all four characters' habitual practices of perception and representation. Astrid, who views the world almost exclusively [End Page 135] through her digital camera, misses out on the actual experience of events until Amber breaks her camera and helps her develop greater self-confidence. Magnus, who has suicidal thoughts after he is involved in a prank with a female classmate's photograph that seemingly leads to the young woman's death, learns to view women differently through his interactions with Amber. Michael, a poet and university professor who has seduced numerous female students, rethinks his womanizing tendencies when Amber rebuffs his advances. Eve, the author of fake autobiographical narratives, experiences a crisis of faith in her writing career; her confrontations with Amber inspire a journey of self-discovery. These third-person alternating narratives (twelve of them altogether), which liberally employ free indirect discourse, are accompanied by four short segments narrated in the first person by a character-narrator who calls herself Alhambra and who is closely associated with, though not necessarily identical to, the non-narrating character Amber.
The terms "character narrator" and "character" must be used provisionally, however—the novel's unnatural qualities unsettle these categories. In this essay, after establishing the unnatural features of Smith's mysterious figure, I will examine the ideological implications of the Alhambra voice, using feminist film and narrative theories to illustrate how Smith's novel calls into question the "naturalness" of gender roles and revises conventional constructions of femininity and masculinity. The concluding section of the essay challenges a distinction made by theorists of unnatural narratives between readings that minimize the oddity of unnatural features and readings that highlight the unnatural. I posit that in ideological readings of unnatural texts, real-world knowledge emerges from readers' encounters with the unnatural, even when readers cannot invoke real-world parameters to explain a narrative's unnatural elements.
There has been considerable disagreement about Amber/Alhambra's ontological status: she has been variously described as a representation of the Freudian unconscious or "externalization of the characters' submerged desires" (Tancke 2013: 80, 85); "a supernatural stranger, . . . a fantastic, angel-demon presence" (Horton 2012: 641); and a "dangerous" woman whose "powers are never fully explained" (Germanà 2010: 87). According to Mark Currie, the narrating Alhambra is Amber's "metaleptic [End Page 136] other" (2006: 119). Patrick O'Donnell terms her both an "uncanny other" and "a floating narrative presence" (2013: 96), while Stephen M. Levin sees her as "a figure for narration" itself (2013: 41). These various descriptions of Amber/Alhambra dovetail with definitions of unnatural narrative; unnatural narrative theory thus provides an apt lens through which to examine Smith's novel. As Jan Alber and Rudiger Heinze note, the unnatural can occur at the level of either fabula or sjuzhet, or both (2011b: 7). Its theorists are interested not only in events depicted within a storyworld that are deemed impossible in the actual world, but also in ways that the act of narration itself becomes unnatural, containing "physically, logically, mnemonically or psychologically impossible enunciations" (Alber et al. 2010: 124). In The Accidental, the character Amber seems fantastical, otherworldly, possessing uncanny abilities to read other characters' minds. Information about who she is and where she comes from remains highly ambiguous throughout the novel. As a first-person narrator of several short sections of the...