I'm going through a long list of novels. As always, I'll only blog about the ones I like. I have two to recommend - one good and one great.
First is The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. It started out with tremendous promise, became a little too much of one thing, and finished strong. But here's the thing: this is a debut novel, written when Oyeyemi was 19 years old. In that context, it's tremendous. I agree with this review (which I read after reading the book, not before) almost entirely.
And I just finished On Beauty by Zadie Smith.
If you haven't read Zadie Smith's debut novel, White Teeth, give yourself a treat and do so right away. White Teeth was hyped to the skies, Smith instantly dubbed The Next Big Literary Thing. This made me reluctant to read it, and prejudiced against it when I did. (Hype kills.) The book won me over. White Teeth is just so enjoyable, so entertaining, and rings so true. It's irresistible.
I didn't read Smith's second book, The Autograph Man. It sounded like a misstep, and I thought I should avoid it.
But her third novel, On Beauty, is extraordinary. In this book, Smith weaves themes of race, gender, sex, love, honesty, self-image and self-deception, all deftly blended into a family story. The book is also about art - the different ways people experience and relate to art, what art can mean in our lives.
Somehow - and this is what impresses me the most - Smith avoids the great pitfall that will instantly turn me off from any novel: none of her characters are billboards for ideas.
Characters have to live, they have to be real. Only then can they convincingly convey themes. This is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. I know, because I'm not very good at it myself. I'll read a rave book review, then give up ten pages in because the characters are all speechifying for the author. Smith's characters are real people, full flesh and blood. Ideas are seen through their lives, but they have lives, first.
I'd be interested in knowing if other people agree with this, or feel the characters are too much "types".
On Beauty didn't grab me right away. I didn't love the beginning, but I liked it enough to give it a chance. Then I liked it a lot. Then I loved it. It's beauty and complexity grew. Like White Teeth, it's also very funny.
Smith also meant this novel to be a modern re-telling of E. M. Forster's Howard's End. I'm not a big Forster fan, and I had a hard time remembering anything about Howard's End, despite having both read the book and seen the Merchant-Ivory film. I tried reading about the Forster novel online, but it only bogged me down. Once I decided to forget all about Howard's End and just read On Beauty for itself, I was able to enjoy it.
Even though this association didn't work for me, it's still impressive that On Beauty works on this level, too.
You know, I never envy anyone's material wealth or possessions. I admire physical beauty, but I don't envy it. I don't envy fame. The only thing I envy is talent. I recognize talent, and sometimes I envy it so much, I grit my teeth with craving. Talented young writers like Oyeyemi and Smith just amaze me, and drive me a little bit nuts.