I’m not really sure why I picked this novel to read, as I’ve read ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith and I didn’t rate it very highly. However I am glad that I decided to give Smith another chance as, in my opinion, this book is a lot better than her previous novel. It’s a really compelling story and the characters are diverse and interesting.
The narrative style is very unique – not always written in grammatically correct sentences – and at first I thought I was going to find it difficult to read, but in fact I enjoyed the way it was written and I actually thought that it enhanced the representation of the characters. The narrative is sometimes in third person, describing the events objectively (“Here lie a man and a woman. The man is more beautiful than the woman.”) and other times the narrative slips into first person, and the characters thought processes are revealed, giving a more intimate relationship with the characters.
Smith’s observations of her characters and their lives in London are thoughtful and exacting; she has undeniably captured the essence of London life. Everyday events in the lives of the characters are described with a brilliant reality, such as Leah’s encounter with Shar at the beginning of the novel and Felix’s encounter with the two young men on the tube. Smith experiments with stereotypes and simultaneously confirms your ideas about some of the characters while completely challenging the conventional image of others.
The novel follows four people from North West London and how their lives become entangled. All the characters have their faults and their problems and Smith makes it easy to empathise with each of them despite their differences. The bulk of the story is told with Natalie Blake at its centre, a character who has a successful career and home life but is not without her own struggles. She has a tendency for viewing herself as though from the outside, as if she doesn’t recognise her life as being her own. I felt that Natalie’s way of thinking about herself is a symptom of modern society and a reflection of how thinking too much about how we should act or how we should feel hinders our ability to perceive ‘real life’. I also thought this was a comment on the effect of modern technology and social media; the image we present to the world online is not necessarily the ‘real’ version of ourselves.
Zadie Smith tackles some difficult issues in this novel, particularly the poverty experienced by some of the characters. At the end of the novel Leah contemplates: “I just don’t understand why I have this life” and, to me, this is the main concern of the novel – how do four individuals brought up in the same area of London come to lead such wildly different lives? They have completely different aspirations and ideas about what it is possible for them to achieve. What is it that makes each person’s life different: is it opportunity, hard work, luck or wanting it enough?
I really enjoyed this novel. It is both serious in its handling of certain themes but also comic and imaginative. It is a brilliant portrayal of modern life.