this is a three and a half
star cat that i am unapologetically rounding up to four.
is it zadie smith’s best book?
far from it.
a great book is like an egg – it is round and firm and full of burning life-bits held in place by a narrative design both delicate and strong enough to sustain its beating heart.
but this book, if you will permit the metaphor, is an egg slightly scrambled. the larger story is lost in the specificity of particular moments that never seem to adhere into a coherent narrative intent. fittingly, in an exchange between the narrator and another character:
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“Deal with the drops when you can see the ocean.”
this is a book preoccupied with the drops. and for me, that’s not a dealbreaker, because zadie smith’s writing is strong enough that i’m truly a reader captivated. when she describes a childhood friend as a fragile blonde…who had scars all up her arms and looked like a broken cat left out in the rain, even though that friend never makes an appearance outside of that sentence, i know that character perfectly. and the “drops” that feature here are huge: race, family, fame, wealth and poverty, responsibility, rivalry, motherhood, history, perception – these aren’t small themes, and they aren’t dealt with as small themes, but it’s hard to look back after you’ve read the novel and understand what all the moments add up to.
part of the difficulty is with the narrator. she isn’t particularly likable so the reader isn’t emotionally invested in her success, but she’s not unlikable enough to feel delighted when she fails. in a book where race is such a focus, it’s fitting that the biracial narrator comes across as tonally beige. she’s not even given a name. but she is given many excellent lines, as in her observations upon visiting kunta kinteh island:
All paths lead back there, my mother had always told me, but now that I was here, in this storied corner of the continent, I experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power – local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic – on all kinds of weaknesses, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood. Every tribe has their blood-soaked legacy: here was mine. I waited for whatever cathartic feeling people hope to experience in such places, but I couldn’t make myself believe the pain of my tribe was uniquely gathered here, in this place, the pain was too obviously everywhere, this just happened to be where they’d placed the monument.
i mean, phoar.
so, for me, even though i didn’t get some grand takeaway from this novel, i enjoyed so much of the writing and the small developments that i can overlook its flaws. it’s not a personal best for smith, but it’s not even close to a dud.