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Sunday, 10 March 2013


I think that anything that Zadie Smith writes is worth reading, even if, like this book, it is a bit rambling and lacks a centre.

The blurb at the back of the book says that it is the story of a city. It is not quite that, but it does attempt to give something of a portrait of North West London, around Willesden, Kilburn, Harlesdon, through a number of characters who the narrative follows.

And yet it is very unfocused, diffuse, hard to grasp. The focus moves from one character to another, characters that are vaguely connected but only vaguely, without ever really following through, without ever really drawing the disparate strands of the story together. There is an attempt near the end to hint that the four people who are more or less central to the book are fundamentally linked, but it is half-hearted at best. This is the great let-down, it is hard to engage with something so shifting, so unresolved.

The strongest part is when we learn about Keisha, who later changes her name to Natalie. This is all about identity, or the lack of it, of losing touch with roots, of this kind of modern deracination, being confused about who you are. Natalie is the centre of the book for me, if it even has a centre, and is the only character who grabbed me in any way. She is complex, conflicted, having it all yet deeply dissatisfied, and profoundly uncertain about who she is or what she wants.

Yet the impact of Natalie's story is diluted by the other, by Felix and Leah, who to me are far less interesting, less real. There are beautiful sentences, insights, jokes, word plays, all the bright cleverness that Zadie Smith achieves so effortlessly. But something is lacking in the novel that was there in On Beauty and White Teeth, a drive, a unity of purpose. A pity.

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