First, the positives.
Wow, can Zadie Smith write. I was frankly amazed at how many voices she successfully inhabited in Beauty
, all of them convincing and smart and funny (and verbosemore on this later). She lards (yeslards) her prose with insights that perfectly capture a character’s mood at any given instant, and this moment-to-moment wisdom lifts many of Beauty’s
scenes from mundane to mesmerizing. Zadie Smith writes domestic dramafamily banter, party conversation, bedroom negotiationbetter than anyone I have ever read in my life. (Full disclosure: I have not read all that many domestic drama-type novels.) The result of all this is that her characters read like smarter, more interesting versions of real people. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
OK, so the prose is no Beauty.
But the narrative voice is an amazing creationchildish yet insightful, lyrically descriptive without feeling strained, heartbreakingly (and sometimes excruciatingly) unflinching. It is very hard to write well about high-octane material like war and murder and rapeand Iweala writes it well. The book is a litany of misfortune, and yet the events are presented in a naïve, matter-of-fact way that makes them seem inevitable, without ever veering close to sentimentality. (Except maybe the endingthe ending was actually kind of sentimental.)
Now, the negatives.
Here’s the thing: Even chocolate will make you puke if you eat enough of it. And I just ate 464 pages of Beauty.
Why, I found myself wondering, is she telling me all this? This book’s blessing also seems to be its curse: The fluency of the voice and the interestingness of the characters leads to long, long exchanges, long descriptions, and long scenes. There are just so many
words. The effect is that it all begins to seem scattershot, even random, a shotgun blast of talented prose. I felt like I was on a cross-country road trip with an extremely smart but crushingly talkative acquaintance. I was ready to bail somewhere around Ohiopage 160, by my countand I would have stopped reading were I not a judge for this tournament. I found myself wishing, truly wishing, for a bit of writerly remove. But British writers have never seemed all that fond of writerly remove.
I felt like I was on a cross-country road trip
with an extremely smart but crushingly talkative
acquaintance. I was ready to bail somewhere
My problem with Beasts
was a simple one: I did not, at times, believe it. I did not believe that what the author was telling me had actually happened, in a literal or fictional sense. My belief was unsuspended; the fictional dream was broken. (There was never a thought of bailing because Beasts
is only 160 pagesa footnote compared to Beauty
.) My skepticism was sharpened by the frequent instances in which the details simply weren’t good enoughthey seemed somehow familiar, and I had a hard time accepting that a first-person description of war, told by a child soldier in Africa, could possibly seem familiar. Some of the scenes in Beasts
felt like what I might come up with, had I sat down to write this novel. And unfortunately that just ain’t gonna cut it.
So, then: two novelistic mixed bags, two cases of readerly disappointment. A true toss-up, a stumper.
(Which brings me to my second, and fullest, disclosure: I have a weakness for underdogs.)