I loved the characters in this book, and cared what happened to all of them. My problem was that the elliptical style — and my uneasy grasp of NW London slang — left me groping occasionally to figure out what was happening, and sometimes to whom. I loved both of Smith’s earlier novels, White Teeth and On Beauty. White Teeth had plenty of English slang; On Beauty was set in the U.S. Both books had, for me at least, a clearer and more accessible style. I hate to think of myself as a reader who needs everything spelled out in grade school language, but for part of the time I found myself stubbing my toe on the spaces in between things in this book. I probably could have felt my way through the slang if the style were more conventional, or could have dealt with the spare style if it were in a slang more familiar to me.
That said, I think Zadie Smith is a great author, and I have no doubt that other readers would have better luck with this book overall than I did. It’s well reviewed, a bestseller, and made numerous best books lists for the year. I might recommend starting with one of the earlier two first, unless you particularly enjoy a sketchier style, though. Here’s a taste of the two main female characters, having dinner together with their husbands. Natalie’s husband is a successful banker; Leah’s is a striving recent immigrant from Africa.
Natalie laughs. Frank laughs. Michel laughs hardest. Slightly drunk. Not only on the Prosecco in his hand. On the grandeur of this Victorian house, the length of the garden, that he should know a barrister and a banker, that he should find funny the things they find funny. The children wheel maniacally round the garden, laughing because everyone else is. Leah looks down at Olive and strokes her ardently, until the dog is discomfited and slinks away. She looks up at her best friend, Natalie Blake, and hates her…
Natalie crosses one bare leg over the other. Sleek ebony statuary. Tilts her head directly to the sun. Frank, too. They look like a king and queen in profile on an ancient coin. Leah must stick to the shade of something Frank calls the gazebo. They two women squint at each other across an expanse of well-kept lawn. They are annoying each other. They have been annoying each other all afternoon.
author photo: Francesco Guidicini/Rex Features