Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted.
Great dancers make the most complicated moves look effortless, and great writers have you swinging through their work like a dance.
Zadie Smith skips easily from London, to New York, to West Africa in her latest novel, without missing a beat. She tells the stories of myriad women, through the eyes of just one, with so light a touch you barely even notice. In fact, I’d finished reading before I realised we don’t even know her name.
Dance is the focus of the two girls central to this story: our unnamed narrator and her childhood best friend Tracey meet at a class in the church adjoining their estates. While one follows her talent to the stage, in the other, the lack of dance feels like a constant pressure waiting to burst out.
Our narrator ends up in a different part of the entertainment world. As a personal assistant to a Madonna-like character, she tends to her needs as she travels the world, and follows through on her charitable plans to set up a girls’ school in a West African village.
It’s an odd mix of subjects. That skip Zadie does - from childhood besties learning about and testing out loyalty, to the glib demands of a celebrity, to an intriguing and fresh depiction of Muslim life in an African village - it sounds weird when you describe it, but it seems so natural when you’re reading.
Perhaps because the central subject doesn’t change. And it’s not dance, it’s simply women.
Mothers, daughters, childless, trapped, free, vindictive, powerful, empowered, weak, naive, loyal, friends, frenemies, employers, politicians and subjects. Every shade of female experience under the sun. And every shade of skin.
Unsurprisingly, given Zadie Smith’s previous work, it’s about women, and also about race. Skin colour matters, if only because it matters to our narrator - the key relationship of her life is based entirely on matching skin tones, and her emotional crises are magnified through the lens of race. Africa, culture, cultural appropriation, history, the point where sex intercepts with race, the point where skin colour means a talented dancer is most likely to show up on stage in Showboat. All these are covered.
It’s not surprising then, given the two central subjects, that this is a subtle and complex work. But the delight of it wasn’t in the heaviness of the subjects Zadie dances over, but the lightness with which it’s done. The frivolous but vivid details of growing up in the 80s - the Thriller video and Back to the Future on VHS - spark a comfortable nostalgia. For me too, the details of both North West London and the music industry are delightfully familiar, as are, for everyone I’m sure, the aims and lives of the charitable celebrity and the emotionally fraught path of school-time friendships.
Strangely, by the end, I felt I knew too what it would be like to stumble around after dark in an African village, the lights failed by the shonky generator, but mobile phone screens casting a blue glow. Basic huts adorned by carefully rendered paintings of the Manchester United logo.
The skill, to me, in Zadie’s misdirecting steps is to make the alien feel as comforting and familiar as the places - physical and emotional - that you already hold dear, and to do so while you’re completely swept up in her dance.
Published: 15th November 2016, Hamish Hamilton
There are the odd few things about The Wangs vs. the World that might feel a little familiar to lovers of the great American novel: three flawed, grown-up children spread out across the USA, an unravelling and slightly hysterical parent determined to gather them under one roof again, and all set against the backdrop of a financial crisis. It’s also an ambitious book with initially unlikeable primary characters, packed with interesting psychological insights and told from multiple perspectives, jigsawing together to build a picture of a modern family.
But this is not the modern classic by Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections, it is the much-hyped debut novel from Jade Chang. And instead of a traditional Midwest family suffering through a modern America they no longer feel at home in, the Wangs are are an immigrant family who have made their home in LA.
Charles Wang, himself the child of Chinese immigrants, moved from Taiwan to the States as a young man to build a fantastically successful cosmetics company, before making a series of bad choices ending in bankruptcy. His eldest daughter, Saina, made her own mistakes of judgement that led her from being a successful modern artist and New York It Girl to hiding out in the Catskills. Andrew is a charming, but deluded, aspiring stand-up comedian, while youngest child Grace is a style-blogging 16 yr-old pulled out of boarding school when bankruptcy hits.
The novel tells the story of a road trip, conceived by Charles when his company fails, to collect Andrew and Grace from their schools and deliver them to Saina’s house - to him the reunion is an end in itself.
It’s billed as a comedy, and many reviews seem to shout out how “hilarious” it is, but while I was reading it genuinely didn’t occur to me that it was supposed to be. It was light-hearted and silly in a pleasing way, but I didn’t ever actually laugh. The silliness spread to the writing style too: you see the world through each of the Wang family members - including, rather unexpectedly, their car.
Only a supremely brash and playful book would let you experience a road trip through the eyes (/lights?) of a protective and sensitive vintage banger. Perhaps the car thing was taking it a little too far, but the chapters are short and don’t really get in the way, so why not? It’s certainly interesting.
In the end, despite the echoes, this is not The Corrections. The writing is good, but not as good, the characters are interesting but not as interesting, and it may be ambitious, but it’s not that ambitious. It’s more of a tribute, a Corrrections-lite, a literary exercise based loosely on the same framework. But in my mind no comparison to The Corrections could ever be a bad thing. And to shoot that high and fall short, can still leave you in a very elevated position.
The Wangs vs the World is a good book, and one of the main differences to The Corrections is also one of its main strengths: these adult siblings aren’t irreconcilably different, they’re ultimately on the same side - it really is the Wangs united against the rest of the world - which is actually very heartening and enjoyably sweet.
Published: 3rd November 2016, Fig Tree, Penguin Books (UK)
Neat, lean, smart. When I try to describe this book I keep coming back to how impressively sparse it is. Targeted, intense and precise, it has all the tension of a mystery while posing as many questions as any literary great.
Lib is a nurse, or more specifically a ‘Nightingale’ trained by none other than Florence during the Crimean War. Now she’s been hired to watch over a mysterious 11 year-old girl. Anna O’Donnell has apparently not eaten a bite of food in 4 months, and is being hailed as a miracle by her Catholic community. Lib is to join forces with a nun to watch over the girl 24 hours a day, to either verify her story, or unmask a fraud. The nurse herself has no doubt at all it will be the latter.
For me The Wonder started like an inversion of the classic Henry James ghost story Turn of the Screw - but instead of a governess arriving at the children’s home all too ready to believe in ghosts, this time the outsider comes expecting nothing but facts, and entirely closed off from the supernatural. But, as in Henry James’ enigmatic tale - how much do we trust our narrator?
She herself has endless faith in her own faculties and conscientious note-taking. And through her careful logging of symptoms, Anna’s condition becomes a fascinating mystery to solve - not unlike an episode of TV show House (it is all too easy to imagine Hugh Laurie urging his team to scrape at those unsanitary-sounding walls for samples.) A breadcrumb trail of clues, both to what’s sustaining Anna, and what’s motivating her nurse.
Author Emma Donoghue is best known for Room, a story where the child imbues every object in his limited world with love and meaning. In The Wonder Emma has done the same with every image and theme. Nothing is wasted, and every word is working triple time. The gift of a thaumatrope, where the spinning toy shows an optical illusion of a bird in a cage, the riddles Lib teaches to Anna as they each search to solve their own puzzles, the painted eyes of the dead still watching out over the choices of the living.
She spins a captivating web of clues, and it’s a bracing delight to follow them, marvelling along the way at that impressively stripped down storytelling. It feels like a work of sublime art, conducted with immaculate craftsmanship. And when the mystery is finally solved, the new journey that triggers is every bit as satisfying as you might hope.
Published: 20th September 2016, Little, Brown UK