There are two kinds of brilliant books: the kind you admire, and the kind you pull over your head like a quilt while the outside world slips away. Improbably, The Accidental manages to be both. Short-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize, Ali Smith's third novel is a clever postmodern confection filled with wordplay and formal inventiveness and cultural references both high and low. Yet it also boasts that most straightforward of literary virtues, an actual plot, and its characters are drawn with an old-fashioned compassion and warmth, even when they least deserve it. As the book opens, the four members of the Smart family are sequestered in a crumbling Norfolk vacation rental, spinning away in their own miserable orbits. Having moved there to finish another of her popular pseudobiographical fictions, Eve is seized by writer's block. Meanwhile her philandering English-professor husband, Michael, finds that even bedding students fails to amuse the way it once did. Eve's teen son, Magnus, is suicidal with guilt after a school prank gone awry; her sullen 12-year-old daughter, Astrid, surveys the world from the safe distance of a viewfinder. Enter the stranger—"a bit raddled, maybe thirty, maybe older, tanned like a hitchhiker, dressed like a road protester"—who walks right in, sits on the sofa, and says, "Sorry I'm late. I'm Amber. Car broke down." Soon the Smarts begin to rotate around her as if she were a sun. With her physical magnetism and her penchant for telling the most savage and literal truths, Amber holds the family together even as she breaks it apart for good. It's a risky move, organizing a novel around a character whose status as device—whose very fictiveness—is so front and center. (Appropriately, she was even conceived in a movie theater, palace of the unreal.) But Smith is no ordinary writer, and Amber is the only nakedly symbolic creation among her impeccably rounded characters. From the Woolf-like stream-of-consciousness of Astrid's POV to Michael's increasingly fractured and incoherent love sonnets, Smith displays an uncanny ear for her characters' innermost voices. Because we believe in the Smarts, we believe in what Amber, that blank slate, represents for each one of them. Like every family, every narrative contains a certain instability at its heart.