Exploring the power shifts in the relationships and the influence of time and distance on them, Zadie Smith crafts a fine novel that mesmerises the reader with the gentle flow of memories coming from the confession of the main heroine.
The unnamed narrator, at the difficult point of her life, confesses the road that has led her there. Starting with her friendship with Tracey – a girl that she’s meet at the local dance classes in North London – she begins to tell us about her life, the people who matter to her, and the events that shaped her. As her own dream to become a dancer dissolves under the pressure of her mother’s demands to learn, she watches her best friend become a West End dancer. However, her life is much less than ideal, as it turns out, in comparison to narrator’s, who jet sets the world along Aimee, a pop-star with a profile that could be compared to the likes of Madonna.
Zadie Smith returns to the themes that have made the most of her books – and just like in her previous novel NW, she comes back to uncover the stories of Willesden belonging to the working class. Her writing channels the lives of schoolgirls perfectly, with an outstanding attention to detail. We get to know their environment from the inside out: unhappy families and the local communities are shown to us in events and facts that reveal secrets in an unusually cinematic manner.
The episodic structure that the novel follows allows the narrator to jump back and forth between the events of the past, threading them onto the plotline to come up with a logical, solid net of explanations and musings about the nature of the relationships we nurture throughout their lives, and how time and distance inevitably changes them, deepening the cracks on the surface and making them even more fragile than they’ve been before. She also explores the power dynamics in the relationship, pairing confidence with insecurity and ambition with indifference. Smith’s observations fuel the decomposition of the two key relationships in the book, and make the reader stop and think about that relationship net the narrator has been estranged from.
Picking up the discussion about the discrepancies between the dreams and the reality, the book tries to understand what “accomplished” means, too. Some of the characters don’t end up where they could be due to circumstances – and some of those that we meet between the pages are more than happy to stay where they are. Hawa, for instance, the teacher in the small African village which Aimee and her team help, enjoys the atmosphere of her birthplace: she’s an active part of the community, she lives on the gossip and maintains her social circle with pleasure. That surprises our narrator, who has seen the world, and although she’s never felt the need of pursuing something grander than her neighbourhood, she feels that the girl in front of her wastes the opportunities. Her mother, similarly, is an activist with a degree she’s earned while taking care of her daughter: ambitious and with a sense of purpose, she’s rooted in the local community that she aims to help, and she has a strong understanding of her own roots. On the other scale of this spectrum is Tracey; a girl who had a bright future lined up in front of her, but never quite achieved what she was predestined to do.
Kicking off in the middle of the events and leading us through the complexities of her relationships, the narrator draws us into her world, introducing us to every person she’s known to give us the full picture of the events. Through Zadie Smith’s hand, the past and present worlds rise, creating captivating spaces and events from the memories of the heroine, whose name remains a mystery for the reader despite the connection they develop.
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