Publication Date: November 15, 2016
Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2016), Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2017)
A sweeping multi-layered novel that reads like a dance through childhood into adulthood, across cultures, exploring race, class and gender issues. At the heart of this novel is the friendship between two “brown girls” growing up in public housing estates but in school with a largely white community in London. They see each other at dance class and are immediately drawn to each other, to the same tone of skin, similar but opposites. They are opposites in that one has a white obese doting mother that lathers her daughter with praise and attention while the other has a black mother subsumed with leftist politics and educating herself seemingly hardly noticing her daughter. The narrator feels like an accessory to her mother. She feels barely noticed and out of place until her friendship with Tracey begins.
The narrator is unnamed throughout the novel and her childhood friend is Tracey, who is boisterous, adventurous, fun loving and narcissistic. The narrator seems to float through the novel on the energy of others. First and foremost, there is Tracey’s energy that dictates their play and social lives. Tracey is a brilliantly talented dancer and though the narrator loves dancing, she lacks Tracey’s talent. They spend countless hours watching videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson to name a few.
The narrator’s Jamaican mother, a modern day Nefertiti, is a left wing feminist and activist studying politics and philosophy. The father lacks motivation, but is loving and doting towards his family. This is in sharp contrast to Tracey’s family, where there is an absent father. Tracey creates stories to explain where he is and what he is doing, but it seems he left them and has a new family. Though the narrator’s mother criticizes Tracey’s mother and her habits, the narrator enjoys the quiet of Tracey’s home compared to the anger in her own home where her mother no longer wishes to be married to her father.
Jealousies arise and tensions result. The girls in childhood had written stories of “ballet dancers in peril.” Tracey would create and dictate these stories while the narrator transcribed. Always, just as it seemed the happy ending would arrive, disaster would result. Thus, Tracey’s stories foreshadow the end of the beautiful friendship of Tracey and the narrator. Tracey tells the narrator a story about her father, which may be fact or fiction, that causes them to cease speaking to each other for over a decade.
The narrator goes off to college and leaves behind Tracey and their friendship. After a few gigs as a dancer, Tracey’s dancing career fades and she is a single mother to three children all by different fathers and is still living in the public housing estates, a fate the narrator’s mother warned against. The narrator begins working for a big name singer/dancer named Aimee. Aimee’s life is large. She has many people who work for her, numerous boyfriends, children by various men, she travels widely, and becomes interested in opening a girls’ school in an un-named country West Africa, which by geographical description can be identified as Gambia. The narrator again is living in the shadow of another large personality, not living a life of her own, running on the energy of another. The narrator travels back and forth getting to know the inhabitants this West African country, watching the fall out of diaspora that occurs there as people (especially men) begin to leave.
The narrator is eventually drawn back to Tracey through her mother who has been working for Parliament. The narrator’s mother reaches out to the narrator pleading with her to ask Tracey to stop harassing her with countless letters that initially ask for help, but then begin to criticize the government, and her mother, and the inability of anybody to help with her situation. Her mother becomes consumed and tortured by these letters, unable to think of anything else. She is guilt ridden and seemingly identifying Tracey rather than the narrator as her daughter as she is dying,
When the narrator confronts Tracey, Tracey asks her who she is trying to be. The narrator’s voice has changed, her life has changed. After leaking the childhood video, Tracey sends it to the narrator with a note saying, “now everyone knows who you really are.” Are we our childhood selves? Is who we are defined by who we connect and interact with? Is that identity forever changing? How much of that identity is tied to gender, class and race? How much of our childhood identity, our moral core, do we keep with us?
This novel is beautifully written, incredibly expansive and brings up awesome philosophical questions. There are so many layers to this novel, that one could go on dissecting this for a very long time. I highly recommend this book to everyone. It would make a superb book club book. My one wish for this novel is that the narrator had more presence, but I think that is part of the point of this book. She floats on the energy of others, she is visible in the shadows of her relationship with others. Class, race and gender issues are often seen in reaction to the narrator.
Quotes from the Book:
“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”
“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”
“And I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships—all relations—involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”
“People aren’t poor because they make bad choices. They make bad choices because they’re poor.”
“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”
- Why do you think the narrator remains un-named for the duration of this novel? What effect does this have on the reader?
- Compare and contrast the fathers of Tracey and the narrator. Discuss how Tracey’s story about the narrator’s father drew a wedge in their friendship. Do you believe Tracey’s story?
- Compare and contrast Tracey and the narrator’s mothers.
- The narrator’s mother compares the narrator’s life to slavery. She is working for Amy and not living a life of her own. What do you think the narrator really wants from life?
- Tracey’s father talks about how there is distinct separation of races inside prison, where on the outside there is mixing. How much mixing do Tracey and the narrator experience? Are they fundamentally drawn to like as well?
- Discuss the experience of being of mixed race, not being fully white or black as experienced by the narrator and Tracey.
- Discuss the complexities of girlhood friendships and how this might change as girls mature into adults?
- The narrator’s mother tells the narrator that she is nothing if she uses her body for work rather than her mind. The narrator tells her mother that she is nothing. How is this a coming of age moment?
- Discuss the relationship the narrator has and the warmth she feels from her father as compared to her mother.
- Why does our obsession with celebrities allow for a certain amount of chaos?
- Discuss the video made of Tracey and the narrator dancing. What effect does it have at the time and how does this come back to haunt the narrator?
- When the narrator goes to West Africa she is told repeatedly “things are difficult here,” when she tries to go somewhere or do something on her own. Why? Why do they treat her with “kid gloves”?
- Compare the fates of the women in the West African village to Tracey’s fate.
- Discuss the culture and community that the narrator experiences in West Africa. How does Amy’s presence and the wealth that flows in change things? Discuss the diaspora that is happening.
- The narrator’s mother becomes part of Parliament, but is beaten down and tormented by the letters that Tracey sends. Why do you think these letters affect her so deeply?
- Why does the narrator go to visit Tracey and her children as the novel ends? What is her intent?
New York Times Review by Holly Bass
Review in The Atlantic by Dayna Tortorici
Review by Annalisa Quinn for NPR
Interview with Zadie Smith on NPR