Derivative and Inspired

Like you were at the book club but without the cake or the spoilers

This month Book Clubbers have been reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and what a hefty 540 pages it is. So you might want to get this on a kindle but bear in mind it is one of those books that literally infests second hand bookshops: there are so many that they collect in piles in the corners of these shops and harassed charity shop workers have to sweep them out of the doors onto the street at the end of the day. #Truefact. So maybe just buy one of those and tear it up into nice manageable, portable chunks instead?

Allegedly Smith wrote this, her debut novel, at 24 in all those spare little moments she had when studying for her finals at Cambridge. A degree she got a first in by the way, in case you weren’t already curled up in the foetal position crying and facing your own crushing inadequacy…. Just me? Okay… cooool. Cool.

Smith faced a lot of comparisons to Salman Rushdie’s work when this novel was released, something she arguably courted, and she does (at her best) have some strands of the fantastical like Rushdie but sometimes she misjudges the throws and her attempts land slightly more in the absurd. Her use of narratives which echo along the generations is also reminiscent of Rushdie and this style when written well can be hauntingly beautiful but sometimes for Smith it becomes contrived. She seems to have lost her way at times in this book, some narratives seem pointless leaving it slightly flabby and a desperate attempt to tie disparate themes together in the denouement leaves a nagging suspicion of the unsatisfactory about it.

However the story is fundamentally enjoyable: it carries you along easily in the ebb and flow of the characters’ lives and the picture Smith paints of North London is a bright and vivid one. The real successes of the novel, strangely, are all of the incidental characters. Two particularly successful ones are elderly Jamaican men, Denzel and Clarence, who are so vivid you can almost hear their heavily accented insults over their unending domino game in the local greasy spoon. The payoff at the end maybe isn’t as satisfying as it could be but maybe Smith’s work is more about, like, “The Journey” man. Or something?

This book is not perfect but what novel is? What debut novel is for that matter? What debut novel written when you were 24 and studying for your finals at Cambridge which you’ll get a first in is for that matter? *weeps silently*

The next book is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters which D&I is informed isn’t anywhere near as filthy as Fingersmith: more’s the pity. So on the 23 March we will be gathering at the Long White Cloud on Hackney Road at 7pm for cake, discussions and then probably more cake. See you there!

Blog by Jodie Major for Shoreditch Sisters WI