THE east wind blew in Mary Poppins to work her assorted spells upon the staid Banks family of London.
Seventy years and an entire English civilization later, a cheap car breezes Amber into the trendy Smart family in Ali Smith’s “The Accidental.” Michael Smart professes “the energy of the new” to his contemporary literature students and energetically seduces a new one each term. Eve is a writer of uplift hokum, briefly successful but currently blocked. Magnus and Astrid are the unhappy teenage products of their parents’ scatty self-absorption. The Poppins disruptions were a lot of fun and only a little didactic; Amber’s are massively didactic and much less fun.
Smith’s previous novel, “Hotel World,” had a ghost for a principal character. In “The Accidental,” with a similar, vaguely magical realist touch, she makes Amber a barefoot sprite, airily disembodied and corporeally hairy. She is in her 30s: sexy, disruptive -- the avenging sword of a species of New Age righteousness. Turning up at the Smarts’ scruffy summer rental in the flat Norfolk countryside, she proceeds to:
* Utterly undo Michael and his vanities, and eventually put him back together at a submissively humble level.
* Shatter Eve’s professional and domestic competence (already badly failing) through a series of verbal and physical assaults, and, at the end, send her into the world instilled with some of Amber’s own combative traits.
* Extricate Astrid and Magnus from their adolescent fears and depressions even as she casts the parents down into respective and possibly redemptive purgatories. The siblings rise into freedom, courage and the confidence to engage the world.
Smith gives her highly maneuvered magical-mystery woman some strained religious overtones. Amber’s origin is a postmodern, decidedly maculate version of the immaculate conception doctrine. Her mother, briefly mentioned at the start, was equivalently sprite-like. Aroused by a film starring Terence Stamp, she wandered into the theater’s deserted cafe and arranged for the attendant, a stranger, to impregnate her.
Part of what Amber received from the mother’s side, she declares, were “the uses of mystery; how to get what I want.” And from her father: “how to disappear, how to not exist.”
And so, having it all ways -- at once forceful and elusive -- she chooses the Smarts’ materialistic and spiritually vacant 21st century household to make her chastening appearance.
First off, she selects Astrid, broody and aloof. Every day, Astrid goes off with her camera, observing, documenting. She wakes early to shoot dawns. She aims to record a burned-down local restaurant owned by East Indians. For pages and pages she tries to stitch a pattern from everything she reads, notices, overhears. It is a barrier to involvement; a kind of time-delay put up, rather in the fashion of Carson McCullers’ “Member of the Wedding,” to fend off the terrors of growing up. Amber will entice and pummel her forward. She takes her for walks, feeds sugar to a crippled bee -- even the tiniest life is to be nourished is the lesson -- and raises her courage by telling taboo truths about Astrid’s parents.
Amber not only preaches courage and confrontation but practices it as well. To knock Astrid off her observer’s perch, Amber smashes her camera. Astrid is shocked, then entranced, and finally shocked and entranced into becoming her own woman warrior. Success soon follows: A young man finds her attractive; the schoolgirls who used to bully and snub her want to be friends.
Then it’s Magnus’ turn. Conscience-stricken over a cruel prank that caused a schoolmate’s suicide, he tries to hang himself from a beam in the bathroom. Amber turns up right away to ask if he needs any help doing it. When he collapses in tears, she lifts him down, bathes him and, over the following days, initiates him steamily into sex. He too flowers.
With Michael, her method is to display indifferent contempt for him and for his labile need to instigate admiration and serially seduce. The peacock finds himself a poor plucked fowl and only gradually does he learn that under the feathers we all walk naked. He goes to pieces and loses his job after a student who has forcefully come on to him reports him (somehow we suspect Amber’s involvement). Eventually, he will discover the virtues of loving, house-husbandly lowliness.
Eve is tougher. Her whole structure of gracious denial holds out until Amber takes her by the shoulders as if to kiss her, then gives her a hard shake, then softens -- the pair, seemingly, enjoy an intimate exchange of womanly confidences. Then she brutally insults her. By now she has accomplished her aim. Having hardened Eve and given her a sufficient edge, Amber anneals this edge by punching her in the eye and vanishing.
Interesting methods -- at times -- but terribly pat purposes. The purposes swell up didactically as Amber moves between the ferociously canny and driftily uncanny. (Ayn Rand dips a toe into Garcia Marquez waters). They cut off the novel’s breath, and the reader’s. Breathing is simultaneously accelerated and blocked by a prose style that ranges between grandiose and convoluted.
Amber is written with a punchy if sometimes preachy directness. Each of the Smarts, on the other hand, engages in some particular variety of interminable introspection. Astrid’s, for example, is an elaborately wise naivete that resembles the ceaseless patter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9-year-old Oskar from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Foer contributes a blurb to Smith’s cover). One section, devoted to Michael, is entirely in verse; the purpose is satiric, the effect is a preciousness that irritates much of the novel’s telling.
Like an elaborately faceted lens, Smith’s writing aims to magnify her story and its characters. Instead, angled as it is, it distends its creator.