I’d give my absolute eyeteeth to have a cup of tea with Zadie Smith.
The critics’ comments splashed all round the cover of this national bestseller give a hint of what’s to come (good news, seeing as just occasionally the reviews are overly enthusiastic and you can’t help but feel a little diddled by the outcome) : “a fluent, observant, deeply amiable novel”, said The avuncular Sunday Times; “Smith writes like an old hand, and sometimes like a dream” (this from The lyrical New Yorker); and then from the even more effervescent New York Times : “a big, splashy, populous production, reminiscent of books by Dickens and Salman Rushdie”. Fine praise indeed!
And what a fine novel to want to endlessly quote from – it begins glowingly with “A dull childhood, a bad marriage, a dead-end job – that classic triumvirate”, and a character called Clara who has no front teeth, yet whose teeth you cannot fail to envisage even when she has lost them – “she could circumnavigate an apple with her front teeth even before her tongue got anywhere near it” (have buck teeth EVER been so easy to visualize?!?).
This book is quite simply terrifically good. Loved the depiction of Joyce with her delphiniums, her references to Omar Sharif, the comic nature of bruiser son Oscar. Thrilled at the potted Busy Lizzie story, with each child emulating how a mummy or a daddy nurtures their child (“the next week his mother phoned and asked why I’d asked Winston to feed his plant Pepsi and put it in front of the television”). Zadie Smith is by turns funny, whimsical and lovingly observant of the characters who swirl around giddily under her microscope.
I suspect it’s another tricky one to utterly relish if you do not hail from the UK because of the numerous references to the making of history at the time with that storm we all remember (?) from 1987, the Bradford riots over that book being published, etc etc – but hopefully not too much is lost in translation, for not to savour this book would be a pity. Oh, and if you have the opportunity, well worth delving into the archives and watching the Channel 4 screen adaptation. Spot James McAvoy aged about ten, and Archie Panjabi pre “The Good Wife” days, not to mention Geraldine James and Phil Davis, etc etc. A great cast, who do justice to the warm-hearted and sometimes tragic episodes from this very great book.
Read in 2013.
Rating : 10/10
Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2000, Guardian First Book Award 2000, James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction 2000, National Books Critics Circle Award Nominee 2000, Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award 2001….