By Zadie Smith
I’m not sure if my original post date is up here but I started reading this book weeks ago. I had put up my thoughts when I got to the half way-ish mark but, oh joy! The internet was having her period so the entire lot got deleted and I daren’t ask why…
Worry not though booksters, it may actually be a blessing in disguise. You see, although I like to make notes as I go to avoid missing or forgetting bits I really don’t want to forget, I think this one is probably better discussed rather than described. The author herself is the real deal; no stranger to awards and long lists and short lists and praises and critical acclaims and yadda yadda yadda. I remember falling a little in love with her when I came across Martha, Martha during my first year at university. Who could lay eyes on such a beautiful face and not fall a little in love? But the writing is what does it. It’s what did it then and it’s what does it now. With her current work Swing Time making Man Booker Prize headlines, I figured her debut novel would be a good place for us to start. The story itself, or stories within the overarching series of events, is not where the value lies for me personally. It (they) are a good starting point, however.
So, in a nutshell, we have-
- Archie & Samad friendship.
- Clara & Alsi, their respective wives, friendship.
- Both married couples relationships.
- Irie (Archie & Clara’s child) & Magid and Millat (Samad & Alsi’s twins) friendship.
- The Chalfen family inserted into those above (their son, Josh becomes an unlikely and rather unwanted friend to the afore mentioned children.).
These relationships, their formations, struggles, reciprocities and resistances are the driving forces of the events that unfold. How Archie and Samad become friends is a pretty crucial part of the story for two basic reasons. Firstly, it is from this friendship that everything else springs. The stories, the characters and the twists and turns are all rooted in this original sin. The second is because the denouement revisits the foundations upon which this relationship is based and leaves the reader in some doubt as to what follows.
One could go into endlessly detailing each of the stories and still have leftovers to chew on. The author herself described Archie and Samad’s friendship as her favourite part of the novel because the one-on-one male friendship is a rare and touching thing and as mentioned, there is no doubt in this being its central story. But like book club discussions everywhere, I felt differently. For me, it formed the backdrop. I found Clara’s story more fascinating. I love the way we weave in and out of her story, looking back through three generations of Bowden women and forward through them too. Their colonial contexts had me by the nose-hairs! And the Patois? The linguist in me was having a field day! Not because of their aesthetic appeal! Certainly not because the sounds make one salivate…(‘.’)… but because it genuinely takes you through the cultural process that brought it into being. The linguistic prowess of this novel is one of my favourite features by a long way. As is often the case with language, there is a living breathing quality to be found in its choices and uses. They are not characteristic idiosyncrasies, they present a particular world view.
This leads us neatly into, by far, the best feature of this novel for me- it’s characters! They are an honest-to-god thing of beauty. For example, I hated Millat. I loved Alsi. I pitied Samad. I laughed with “neice-of-shame”. I agreed with Josh. I was intrigued with Magid. I wanted to squeeze Archie. I wanted to slap Mrs Chalfen. There was not a single, and I mean NOT ONE flat character. Nobody was a space-filler. No random faces, no empty places. The stories were nothing without their stick beating, face spitting, bare-ass farting, indirect speaking, haraam eating, no-strings screwing, secretly kidnapping, toothless and claws-out characters. Nothing.
I loved that I hated Millat. He is the lost soul prone to extremism- whether it is his intoxicated tirades or his need to play “Soldier of God”, he is a dick. Much loved socially for all the typical reasons dudes often are (sex-appeal, attitude, fearlessness, a fun-time), he has the same distant lull of the violin in the background signifying a misunderstood hard-done-by soul in need of rescuing. We all know somebody who does whatever their ego requires but falls into woe-is-me mode when it blows up int heir face. To me, that is what he is. A dick.
You know the saying, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, don’t you? Well, it doesn’t. Samad too is quite the bell-end. But he doesn’t seem to actually want to hurt anybody really. Oh, he does and does so in shocking ways, but he is more pathetic than pure evil in my opinion. He is a familiar hypocrite too. The drinking Muslim who needs to protect his innocent children from the vices of the West! Him giving them up himself and retreating to a life of simplicity in the Chittagong Hills was not quite his ticket though; best he stay local and martyr himself on the hamster wheel to keep his family and his flaws afloat. His love of Archie is his better self. His intimacy with his old war buddy is genuinely endearing. The fact that it’s called into question at the end is also genuinely enthralling. What does it all mean for the bond forged over forty years?
Like I said, one could go on and on, and there are so many characters to choose from. Actually, why choose at all? Have them all! Take them body, mind and soul people because I’m telling you, you’ll find a place for every one of them in your world. They’ve been written exquisitely. Again, Smith’s style is riveting. At no point are you lost in spite of the tangents she will take you down? Somehow they are all relevant. Somehow they are necessary to the vivid world you quickly become a part of, which is no easy feat considering you are in a several of them across different centuries and decades.
Have you reached the end yet folks? It took me the better part of 4 weeks to get through it so stick with it if you’re still going! What are your thoughts? Let’s get a conversation going people, what’s a little disagreement between friends eh?