Zadie Smith’s breathtaking début novel (of 2000 — I know, everyone in the world has read this book but me) follows the intergenerational twists and turns of three families in North London. Very 19th-century, you might think, nodding sagely. And then you find out that one of the families is Bangladeshi and Muslim, boasting a great-grandfather who (allegedly) started the Sepoy Rebellion; one is Jamaican and matriarchal, with an on-again, off-again love affair with the Jehovah’s Witnesses; one has British Jewish ancestry going back centuries, but believes in nothing but itself. In the brief pauses of the modern-day story of the children of the Iqbals and the Joneses and the Chalfens, the stories of the parents and grandparents are also heard. Bit by bit, the odd lives and vital questions of immigrants to this particular place come out, and the rich texture of North London, where culture clash, inclusion, exclusion, poverty, identity, and friendship exist side by side, becomes so luxurious that you can touch it.
I loved this book. Smith handles all her characters with the same mildly amused affection, as if they were members of her own loony family. The fathers who tell the same war stories over and over, the children who strike out in misguided directions to find their own histories and futures, the fiercely protective mothers — all these characters have real personalities, stories, dimension. Despite the fact that this book has to do with such potential powder kegs as religion, sexuality, colonialism, patronage, well-intentioned liberal racism, fundamentalism, drug use, and (of all things) genetic engineering, it’s all handled wryly and sympathetically, never losing the thread of the story, never losing a sense of humor, never losing resourcefulness or interest. Even peripheral characters are memorable. It’s a wide, big-hearted, generous book, and though it touches so many people and so many ideas, it keeps them all safe for the end. (And no neat and tidy bow of an ending, either. No. A nice satisfying messy ending, like life.)
The best part of the book is its deft handling of the colonial relationship. Time and again, Smith revisits this territory: stolen land, subjugated people, women’s bodies treated as possessions. (That her women have something to say about this is one of the book’s delights.) Irie Jones despises her Jamaican body in a forest of slender English girls. The Iqbal twins, Millat and Magid, are annexed by the well-meaning Chalfens. What does it mean to be true to your identity in a foreign land? Samad Iqbal, talking to Irie:
“And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie… and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?”
As Samad described this dystopia with a look of horror, Irie was ashamed to find that the land of accidents sounded like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom.
Smith treats the impossible importance of the past and the delicious lure of freedom and the future with passion and humor. This was a wonderful book, all tangled up in love and duty and connection and tenderness. Read it, if I’m really not the last person on earth to have done so.