The strength of this novel, for me, is in the very tight point of view for each of the chapters, right down to the individual use of language by the characters whose train of thought we are following. For instance, in the chapter where we first meet Astrid and her reaction to the country village where her parents have dragged her, we know that she is a pre-teen not just from the mixture of sharp insights and sheer incomprehension with which she sees things around her, but from her repetitive use of the word "substandard", in that infatuated way we have when young for some new word or idea.
Like quite a lot of literary novels, this one keeps us engaged by feeding information - who are these people, what is happening to them, what (if anything?) is the shape of the story - in small and obscure parcels that we have to keep decoding. It was, in fact, mostly fun to do, although I was a little disappointed to discover that the seemingly accidental factor that precipitated the breaking of their world and their family - the arrival and persistent presence of a mysterious young woman named Amber - was not accidental at all, and rather easily explained by all-too-common human depravity. Nonetheless, in the unfolding we learned a lot about the inside workings of not just Astrid, but her brother Magnus (racked with guilt over a serious incident at school), her mother Eve (a working author), and her stepfather Michael (a professor of English with tendencies to infidelity).
The formal experimentation is audacious. As Amber enters his life Michael's life become a sonnet, and the next dozen pages are in various poetic forms, including a magnificent sonnet sequence. It doesn't surprise you one little bit that Ali Smith is also a published poet.
What's left at the end? A tremendous sense of inconclusiveness, of course - this is a literary novel after all. A lingering sense of who the characters are, even Amber (who is not a complete mystery, though her chapters require even more decoding than most). And, most of all, a sense of playfulness and lightness.
Appropriately, my reading of this book was entirely accidental; it was a random pick from a book exchange at work. It has made me curious to read more. (I only discovered well after reading it that Ali Smith is Scottish; there's nothing particularly Scottish about the book, though I seem to remember Amber has a Scottish tinge. Still, no need for the "Scotland" tag - Smith's biography makes it clear that her actual and spiritual home is Cambridge).
Recommended if you want to try something you've definitely never read before, and that gives pleasure in exchange for the work.