A new Zadie Smith novel is something to look forward to. Her writing is always both powerful and memorable. And this is no different – mostly.
The unnamed “I” of the story meets Tracey at a dance class in a poor area of London when they are children. Tracey is a big character – in presence, opinions, force and talent. The two become almost inseparable, though the narrator is often caught out by Tracey’s actions.
The narrator’s mother – a powerful, beautiful black woman with a strong sense of her culture and community, and the politics of it – is distant and preoccupied. Her friendship with Tracey becomes the most powerful inference in her life, to her mother’s displeasure.
Tracey and the narrator’s friendship ebbs and flows – and every time they come together again, there are consequences.
Tracey moves on to pursue her dreams of becoming a dancer, a star, and the narrator finds herself at a bit of a loss, finally finding a job at a youth TV station and then as PA to one of the world’s mega music stars (think Madonna, but Australian).
The star, Aimee, becomes interested in providing education for girls in Africa, and the narrator becomes deeply involved in the organisation of it – something we know from the start of the book is going to end very badly indeed.
The writing in this is as good as ever – i belted through it. But … the narrator is frustrating. She doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t ever really grow up, and it makes her an annoyingly doughy, passive character to have to spend all your time with, as a reader.
And I didn’t understand those key choices she makes late in the book that change everything. They felt forced on her by the requirements of the plot, and that was disappointing.
In some ways it felt like an echo of that other book about female friendship – the fabulous Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante. I think it shows this is an idea whose time has come, and I’m grateful for that. The exploration of a difficult, conflicted friendship between women is both worthy and fascinating.
But in the end, after reading through it almost feverishly, the issues I had with the ending and the frustrating character of the narrator left me a little cold.
This book was published in November 2016