Context: Started reading this as I prepared to go on a 320km bike ride through Western Province, PNG.
Definitely enjoyed this more than White Teeth and this is an improvement in terms of focus and character development for Smith. However, this is a novel that, for me, again, just doesn’t deliver enough to leave you feeling satisfied.
This is a novel about two families whose lives overlap because the two men are university professors with rival theories on Rembrandt. Neither are likeable characters but Howard, married to African American Kiki and living in New England, is definitely the more fleshed out. I caught glimpses of Rabbitt (and therefore distant glimpses of Babbitt).
Howard is having a mid-life crisis at 57 and nothing seems to be going right for him. In the meantime, his kids are going through crises of faith and sexuality and identity all of their own. There’s little here you haven’t seen before in contemporary literature so I’m not entirely sure what Smith is contributing.
Sure, the book’s very readable – a LOT more readable than White Teeth – but if this was meant to be a satirical commentary on beauty, it was so subtle it was lost on me. I enjoyed reading it because I enjoyed the characters and what was happening to them. But if there was something deeper I was supposed to be than entertained, it didn’t do it for me.
On the back of the book, for example, the publishers have asked three questions:
- Why do we fall in love with the people we do?
- Why do we visit our mistakes on our children?
- What makes life truly beautiful?
Now these are very important questions and they are right to ask them. But if you think the novel is going to give you anything like answers to these, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed. If the post-modern novel cannot answer these questions clearly and definitively, then what on earth is their place in our discourse?
So, like White Teeth, Smith raises issues only to simply depict them. Without attempting to do more and engage with them in a way that impacts our practical realities, I’m not sure this is much more than fictional voyeurism. We all have questions like those above about life. If you’re anything like as honest as me, you really do want answers to them. Smith has let me down in this department. Good thing I don’t rely on her alone!