Two girls have a dream: from their rather poor family background to the stages of the world, dancing and singing. But only Tracey is talented and can go to a dancing school whereas the narrator is forced by her mother – intelligent and wanting the best, i.e. social ascension by education, for her daughter – to attend a normal school with white girls. The girls go different ways and a couple of years later, the narrator is the personal assistant of one of the most famous stars in the world, the other is struggling with a non-existent career and kids. Their ways cross again and again and the question who has managed to make something of their life hangs in the air.
The friendship of the girls and their respective development is for me the central aspect of the novel, however, Zadie Smith has so much more food for thought in her work. First of all, how can two individuals who do not seem to be so different develop in completely different ways. They are friends, share common idols and ideas and are only divided by talent. Their background makes them outsiders, they – and their mothers – do not know the codes of behaviour which the other children easily manage. They make experiences the white girls would never make, what we would rather call sexual abuse is normal to them and something which seems to be usual and frequent in their communities.
Yet, it is not only the talent that divides them. The narrator’s mother is a typical example of a woman with intellect who does not want to accept social structures as God-given but wants to fight against the position she is allocated by educating herself and wanting the same for her daughter. She succeeds in making a career as a politician and uses her position to fight for her poor constituency – but she forgets her role as a mother. We do not see any love between the two, she is strict and well-meaning, but never affectionate and warm. It takes until her very last days until there is some kind of mutual understanding, but this comes too late for both of them.
Another superficial relationship is the one between the narrator and her employer, Aimee, the famous singer. She wrongly believes that in all those years, something like a friendship has developed, not seeing that she is paid for her role and there is not real personal affection from her boss. The narrator seems to be successful, she travels the world, makes a lot of money, but what has she achieved and especially, to what extent is she independent? She lives someone else’s life, has created nothing herself and does not decide on anything at all. In the end, she does not even have a home anymore. Is this really her life?
In connection with Aimee, we get another important aspect of the novel. Zadie Smith has already thrown a light on the relationship between the white majority in England and the immigrants from the Caribbean or other former colonies. The singer wants to do some good with her money – she possesses more than the GNP of some major countries – and thus sets up a girls’ school in an African village. She ignores local structures and how the teaching works – and what the girls actually need. But they can make nice pictures for the yellow press. We can recognize a lot of stars from the show business here, wanting to do good, but doing the wrong things and ignoring the reality of Africa.
There is so much more which would be worth mentioning, e.g. the narrative structure which springs in time and alternates different lines of the plot so that you only step by step can assemble the whole picture. The fact that everything is only told from the narrator’s point of view – a narrator who does not even get a name, which I think Is also remarkable. Yet, to come to an end, an outstanding novel with so many noteworthy aspects that you have a lot to think about after reading the novel.