Some novels are brilliant all the way through and the ending is of no elevated consequence; with others the ending is all important and can either make it or kill it. This for me falls in the latter category. There was a point about half way through where I felt this was going out of focus. That Smith had assembled an exciting and topical panorama of material but that her storytelling wasn’t quite doing it justice. In short, not for the first time, I had the feeling that she’s a better writer than she is novelist. However the clarity with which the last fifty pages brought all her themes into focus changed my mind to some extent. The ending redeemed some of the mid-point meandering.
No question Ferrante has had a big influence on Zadie. The template for this novel bears lots of similarities with the Elena and Lila saga. The two friends who grow up together; the more talented hampered by social deprivation; the less talented able to move away from the poverty of her background and reinvent herself. Except Smith’s two characters are downgraded versions of Ferrante’s. Tracey is raw talent rather than genius (and infinitely less compelling than Lila as a character) and her friend, the narrator (do we ever learn her name? I don’t think we do), piggybacks on the talent of others rather than ever develop any talent of her own. Also, like Ferrante, this is narrated in the first person.
As is usually the case with Zadie Smith the finest attributes of this novel all centre on her remarkable gift for identifying the changing nature of social and cultural guidelines. She investigates many topical themes – online trolling, celebrity charity, globetrotting, networking, national identity, the adult world becoming increasingly more adolescent. An interesting facet of this novel is perhaps the ascendency of ego in women to the detriment of men. The men in this novel are a hapless bunch. Usually depicted as completely out of their element and unable to make any inroads with regards to ambition or desire. Where it was less successful for me was the narrator herself. She is perhaps too neutral, too passive, too emotionally anaemic. She’s a modern day Nick Carraway – except Fitzgerald used the brilliantly self-effacing Nick to tell the bigger story of Gatsby while Smith’s narrator is way more egotistical and often puts the focus on herself rather than on the more compelling characters around her. This was especially the case in the African section of this book which for me was by far the least successful and where the focus went foggy. And, also like Fitzgerald but again less successfully, Smith keeps the character who supplies most of the novel’s plot a mystery. This is Aimee, a somewhat generic pop megastar for whom the narrator works as a personal assistant. Aimee has about the same GDP as the African country where she sets up a charity to help female school kids. That this ostensibly worthy gesture will degenerate into petty personal bickering is perhaps an emblem of the novel’s prevailing conflict – ego vs genuine nurturing care. Interestingly it’s only the novel’s minor characters who succeed in the latter and they’re all men. In Zadie’s world women have ceased to be nurturing. They are too busy pursuing professional ambition or drenched in bitterness for its demise (though the ending partially contradicts this thesis).
It may, as some have said, be her best book. But I still don’t feel she has quite lived up to the enormous promise of White Teeth and am still waiting for the masterpiece I think she’s got it in her to write.