Last year, around this time, I read my first Zadie Smith novel, NW. To be honest, as I said at the time, it was not my favorite…I was a little disappointed by it, after hearing so many amazing things about Smith. However, she has written so many books and I knew someday I would try another one, just to make sure it wasn’t a one-time mismatch between book and reader (which has definitely happened to me before). And it was a good thing, because this one was, at least for me, so much better. So, cheers to my book club for picking this one as the December read!
“If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely seems more sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.”
Samad and Archie met during WWII and have, for some reason, managed to stay friends throughout the years since, despite the many differences in their pasts and interests and beliefs. This novel follows them and their families, now all living in London; including their choice of wives (or, in some cases, second wives), their children (and their children’s relationships with each other), all against a backdrop of the modernization that occurs during the latter half of the 20th century.
So, as I said, I liked this book so, so much better than the first I read by Smith. But when someone asked me why, as in what was it about the first book that didn’t work for me and what was different about this book that did, I legitimately struggled to answer. Both explore small areas of London, the people that live there, their interactions with each other, the way their pasts/cultures/beliefs affect them, and just generally are pictures of the day to day lives of people… There is so much that they have in common, that is similar about the settings and structures, and yet for some reason, NW fell flat for me and this one seemed so much more full of life and humor. Thinking back, I know that, at least in part, it was due to the distance between myself and the characters that sprang up on account of the experimental writing style in NW. But also, I enjoyed this cast a little more, as far as their personalities, the interactions they had with each other, and the way their individual stories all came back around to end together with a proverbial (and kind of real life) bang. In fact, that reconnecting of all the points of the plot was really well done – I wasn’t sure until it actually happened how it was going to play out. And I appreciate that. Even though I did feel like overall the build-up tended to be a bit long, and there were some small moments where the book dragged, the audiobook helped pull me along through them. And it did help make the depth of the characters more intense, and the understanding for how they got to the point where they played their respective roles towards the end, more complete.
The real gem of their novel though, is the writing. I cannot believe that Smith was so young (only like 22?) when this, her first novel, was published. The voice is so precise, insightful, and full of a knowledge that seems beyond that number of years. The tone is exquisitely biting, a perfect satirical look at cultural values, science vs religion, the interplay of nature and nurture, tradition vs modernization, and what leads a person to radicalization (of any kind). The dark humor in the observations of the absurd/ridiculous in everyday life was definitely the highlight of this novel.
Overall, this was an incredibly ambitious story, in scope of characters and time and topics addressed. While there were some moments that felt a little weird, or moved a little slowly, on the whole, this was an incredibly impressive book. And I totally have a better understanding of the hype about Smith’s writing now. Always a good lesson to re-learn – in the same way you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, you shouldn’t always judge an author by the first thing you read by them…