Eve and Michael Smart, and their children Magnus and Astrid, rent a house in Norfolk for the summer, hoping to escape the stress of everyday London life. One day a young woman named Amber appears on their doorstep, and everyone is so caught up in their own cares, each assumes she is known to one of the others. Astrid thinks she’s a friend of Eve’s; Eve thinks she’s one of Michael’s university students, etc. Amber stays for dinner, and spends the night, albeit in her car. Time passes and before you know it, Amber is firmly entrenched in their lives. She’s a dubious role model and mentor to 12-year-old Amber, the object of 17-year-old Magnus’ passion, and the one woman Michael wants but can’t manage to seduce. Amber also becomes privy to several deep family secrets, some shared with her directly and others obtained through her powers of reason.
It’s all very strange, because she’s not particularly likeable. You’d think one of the parents would kick her out, but every member of the family is so locked inside their own head that no one understands the effect she’s having on them collectively. As Amber inserts herself into the family, she shares remarkably little about herself, and yet manages to get everyone else to let their guard down. Each family member has the chance to tell their version of the story, taking turns as narrator, which enables the reader to get just as deep into each person’s psyche as Amber does. Ali Smith used very different writing styles and techniques for each character, underscoring the differences between family members. On the other hand, Amber’s chapters are decidedly sparse, so as readers our understanding of her is just as limited as the family’s.
I was initially intrigued by Smith’s quirky writing, but eventually tired of it. The story seemed about equal parts positive and creepy. Only when the family returns to London does the full impact of Amber’s visit become clear, and the whole thing struck me as quite creepy indeed. And while this book gave me some interesting thoughts to ponder, I was left wishing some of the family relationships and related themes were further developed.