Search This Blog

Showing posts with label Caitlin Moran How To Build A Girl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Caitlin Moran How To Build A Girl. Show all posts

Monday 1 January 2018

Review: Zadie Smith, Swing Time

I don’t think I’ve read Zadie Smith since White Teeth (2000) which I liked. So when I came to this new novel there was a lot I had read in between, some of which came to mind as I began to read. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Elena Ferrante who also uses the narrative device of two girls growing up together and then going their separate ways. Then there is the cosmopolitanism - the narrative split between London, New York and West Africa – which made me think of Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go. This aspect of the novel I found the least satisfactory. Finally, Smith’s teenage girls reminded me of Caitlin Moran's and, like hers, they can be excruciatingly funny.

Like Ferrante, Smith writes powerful scenes which then accumulate into a longer narrative but without any heavy re-enforcement of a preferred story line. I found the London scenes overall the most striking and there was one, which takes place in a small north London pizza joint (pages 321 – 330), which I thought magnificent. It’s beautifully structured but feels like a story which has made itself up as it is being written, it’s completely unexpected, and it is a splendid example of showing rather than telling. It is packed with emotion, the narrator's included. 

The reviewer at The Observer is credited on the cover with the opinion that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which is really to cut Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading role and reduces her to a clever Sunday school teacher. (In context, the cover quote does not sound half as bad; I checked back to the original review by Taiye Selasi and it’s overall better than the quote the publisher has used).

The novel is a novel and a very accomplished one; there are many turning points where it could shift in several directions, some at least of which will occur to the reader, and it is partly the sense of those other possible directions which gives the reader the chance to feel that this is a work of considerable imaginative power which opens up rather than closes down our own imaginative understandings of how we live and how we might live.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Review: Hanif Kureishi, The Last Word

Books are read in context. I was working for a couple of days in Wiesbaden and took with me an unfinished Caitlin Moran How To Build A Girl. Well, that’s a book where you speed along, tripping over from one gag to the next, and I finished it faster than I had imagined. I heartily recommend it.

I needed something else to read. The nearest German bookshop could only offer me a dozen novels in English (I’ve given up trying to read in German) from which I picked this one.

Kureishi has a very long back list from which I recognised only My Beautiful Launderette which I remember as a fine film.

This is not a book where you trip along, despite the cover puffs which assure you that it is “Brilliantly funny” and “Hugely entertaining”. Maybe it depends where you are coming from. The novel tells the story of a London-based man commissioned by his London publisher to write the biography of an elderly Indian –born but rural England-resident writer, who in turn writes a novel about the upstart young man sent to write his biography. I guess it’s the kind of plot which goes down well in London literary circles where, Private Eye informs me, everyone is up everyone else’s bum.

As a novel, I found it quite flimsy: unambitious plot and characters who aren’t quite, well, characters despite (perhaps because of) the big brushstrokes with which they are painted. I found white working-class Julia the most interesting of his three leading female characters.

But as a novel of ideas – an essay in other words – it’s very interesting. And when it uses its near-to-death main character Mamoon to say things of which London literary society might disapprove if you said them in your own voice, it’s interesting and fun. 

Thus Mamoon:

"[On George Orwell] All that ABC writing, the plain style,the bare, empty mind with a strong undertow of sadism, the sentimental socialism and Big Brother and the pigs, and nothing about love - intolerable. No adult apart from a teacher would bother with one of his novels." (page 92)

“One falls in love, and then learns, for the duration [of a marriage] that one is at the mercy of someone else’s childhood” ( 115)

“The truth is, everything we really desire is either forbidden, immoral or unhealthy, and, if you’re lucky, all three at once” ( 275)

“[Of his personal archive] It’s all going to the university this week. I should have stuffed it in the grate. Ted Hughes, whom I knew and loved, had the right idea with Sylvia’s diaries – push them in the oven after the woman’s head. Otherwise those unreadable academics never stop trying to make their careers and a good income out of it, while making the man look like an ogre. They see it as they wish, without imagination. And it is ordinary male sexuality that they hate” (300)

But reading this last rant, I did wonder if Kureishi did not quite have the courage of his character’s convictions and has left it to the reader to silently insert "politically correct" or “female” before “academics”. Perhaps that's unfair; maybe an editor took something out as an outrage too far. Elsewhere, Kureishi does allow Mamoon his racism.

Refreshingly, and in defiance of the new norm,  Kureishi does not Acknowledge the help of any Facebook Friends.