Saturday, April 29, 2017

The narrator with no name.

Usually, very shortly after I finish a book I write a very brief summary of it and store it in a file.  I do this in part to record the accomplishment and in part to refresh my memory of what the book is/was about.  Also, alas, I keep a record to ensure that I don't read a book for a second time.  This has become handy in recent years.  Subsequently, if I think the book is worth a review, I post one in this blog.

So, when I finished Swing Time earlier this afternoon I went to write a few sentences about the book. I was thinking when I started to write that it would be difficult to describe what the book was about. I started writing anyway.  The book begins, and appears to be, about two friends, Tracey and the narrator.  I was going to write in my synopsis the name of the narrator and was surprised that I could not remember the name.

I had just finished the book an hour before and this made me feel queasy that I could not remember the name of the main character less than 60 minutes after I finished a 450 page book about her.  The book was nearby so I picked it up and leafed through the pages trying to find a reference to the narrator's name.  And then it dawned on me, that there had been none mentioned. That in the entire book nobody identifies the name of the narrator. Not the narrator herself or any of the characters.  And that, I think, is the point of the book.  It cannot be a coincidence that Zadie Smith, the author, deliberately decided not to name the main character.  The narrator was in fact anonymous.  There was no identification. She had no identity.

I do not think this book is one of Zadie Smith's best efforts. I thought On Beauty was terrific and while I don't remember the details I do remember thinking that White Teeth was excellent as well despite a rushed ending.  But this book lacks focus unless the point is that the narrator lacks focus as well.  It begins as if it is a story about two friends in London who meet taking dancing lessons as kids.  The narrator is the child of a black mother and a white father.  Tracey, the friend, is the child of a white mother and a black father.  If nothing else, this book makes the case that race matters and has a powerful effect on societies.

The book goes back and forth between the relationship with Tracey and the narrator's experience being a personal assistant to a white rock star. The rock star has an idea to create a school in Africa for women which will be illuminating. It is the narrator's job in part to facilitate the creation of the school.  So we the readers periodically jump to Africa and then back to London.

When in Africa we meet a bunch of characters who are involved with the school. In London we are brought up to date with what has happened with Tracey. Also, the narrator's activist mother plays a large part as does her sweet if powerless father.  Then there is a college boyfriend who spews the rhetoric of black nationalism and speaks condescendingly to the narrator because of her lack of similar commitment--that he intimates is because she has a white parent.  Then we discover that the boyfriend is the scion of a white mother.  So, lots of messages about race.

Yet the various parts of the book do not cohere. Tracey seems to be going off the rails--her father is a ne'er do well and there is a strong suggestion of child molestation--but then the father kind of disappears.  Then Tracey takes over her mother's apartment and has three children from three different men.  The narrator's mother leaves her female lover after a stint with a male "noted activist" who talks more than does.  Then the mother finally succumbs to cancer while trying to dodge a series of caustic and critical e-mails coming from Tracey of all people.  And yes, the narrator, takes up with a man from the African village who is also fancied by the rock star for whom the narrator works.

The book is well written but does not gel. (It is almost worth the read for the scene where the narrator describes her brief stint working in a pizzeria).  If you like Zadie Smith you might enjoy the book simply because she writes so well. But don't bother if you expect an ending which ties things up.  Or if you want to be clear about who the narrator is.  Because the point is, and maybe this is a point for many of us, she does not really know.

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