What a wonderful book! Rarely does an author come along who can both describe and encapsulate popular culture as well as Zadie Smith does, and in her first novel, no less. Throughout the book, we follow two families, the Bengali Iqbals and the half-English/half-Jamaican Joneses. Their lives entwine together after Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal "fight" in WWII together, and even more so after they both take much younger wives who become pregnant within months of each other. The narrative description is interesting and moves along, the dialogue is realistic, funny, and heartbreaking, and the story is impressive. One can only imagine how much research Smith had to do to make her Jamaican, Bengali, British, Jehovah's Witness, Muslim, etc. characters so believable.
My only complaint with the book is the alacrity with which the climax is reached. We read through 400 pages of backstory and build-up, and then the denouement takes a little less than 30 pages to achieve. It's like Smith was given a page limit, spent a lot of time writing the book, and then realized that she had to end it soon and couldn't bear to cut out anything that had come before. She could have taken a little more time to craft a satisfying ending, but other than that, this is absolutely a book I would recommend.
Nov 5, 2010
Having very much enjoyed Zafon's literary mystery, "The Shadow of the Wind," I had high hopes for this slender novel. I was extremely disappointed. The story is interesting, quite original and well thought out, with an interesting ending, but the writing is just awful. The characters are incredibly simplistic. Their relationships to each other are obvious in the extreme. Their dialogue is practically tortured. Zafon apparently chose to write their speaking in the same way he writes; stories are told in perfect, dramatic detail, in ways that no person actually talks. This took me somewhat aback, and I tried to make excuses for it, such as that Zafon had chosen to write the book this way on purpose. But then why would the narrative be so dull? It was like he switched narrative description with bland dialogue. My best guess is that this was Zafon's first attempt at young adult fiction. Where he failed is in striking a balance between easy readability and challenging the young reader. He ended up, instead, with flat characters and an unbelievable story. Which is a shame, really, because the kernel of the story is really quite good.