Willesden is the setting of both this book and Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth.”
(I wish my rating system allowed for a more nuanced rating, like 3.5 stars. This book is flawed, but still really great. More on that later.)
A couple of chapters into NW, I had a revelation. “Mrs Dalloway! If On Beauty was a modern take on Howards End, then this must be Zadie Smith’s spin on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway! I’ve got the ‘hook’ for my review!” One quick Google search later, I sank back into my seat. Turns out the rest of the world had had that same idea when the book first came out in 2012, and that Smith had actually discussed Woolf as a direct influence on her book:
I was just trying to find a way to be adventurous and do something new in the writing while still holding on to the things that I can do well, [...] So [Virginia Woolf is] just a good example of a forward-thinking and yet consistently humane writer, and just a great female modernist. An old inspiration returned to me at the right moment.
Well. So much for my spark of brilliance.
Major plot spoiler towards the end of the review.
Michael Gambon in the BBC adaptation.
After the Harry Potter series left a terrible, gaping hole in my hearts (in all of our hearts, I should say), I had mixed feelings about the very thought of a new book by J.K. Rowling. What if it wasn’t as good as the Potter series, which had made such a profound impact on my life? What if I actually hated this new novel? Was I ready to be let down by a writer who had been with me from childhood all the way to my first year of university?
I bought The Casual Vacancy the week it came out – and then left it on my bookshelf for three years, untouched. Every once in a while I would glance at the shining red-and-yellow hardback, glaring at me from the other side of the room. I felt guilty, like some sort of literary coward. So what if this book wasn’t any good? Did I really think that would taint my love for Harry Potter? And what if it did? Isn’t taking off the nostalgia goggles and facing inevitable disappointment a part of growing up? With the BBC adaptation coming out this year, I decided that it was finally time to face the music of mediocrity and tackle The Casual Vacancy once and for all.
First things first: every time I read the name “Owen Glendower,” this Horrible Histories song popped into my head. This is not a bad thing.
Now, full disclosure: I did not expect to like The Raven Boys, especially not after reading the first couple of pages. The main character is a girl called Blue (because of course) who was raised by a family of witches and has to live with the knowledge that, if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. She is just another girl, but also Super Special, has a slightly eccentric fashion sense, and her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Basically, Stiefvater has taken every single supernatural YA cliché she could think of and put them in a blender to create her protagonist.
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in this year’s movie adaptation by David Fincher.
Thrillers have a special little place in my heart. My father is mildly dyslexic and finds that it’s easier for him to focus on a book if it has an exciting plot, so he reads books about kidnappings, plots to overthrow governments, and tons and tons of murder. Frederick Forsyth, David Baldacci, Henning Mankell, Thomas Harris… If it has an ominous pair of eyes or a man’s silhouette on the cover, my dad probably owns it. Over the years, I have read a fair number of thrillers myself, either at my father’s recommendation or because I wanted to check a certain book out before buying him a copy for his birthday. When a new Dan Brown book comes out, he reads it first and then watches me with twinkling eyes as I try to win our usual bet (“Can I Figure Out Who Did It Before I’m Halfway Through The Novel”). We watch Danish crime shows together, discuss Sherlock’s latest mystery, and he tries to shush me before I can say “oh, it’s totally that guy” as much as possible.
As fond as I am of the genre, mediocrity is an issue; too often thrillers are positively rife with shoddy characterisation and melodramatic writing (“as long as the plot is fast and just complicated enough to make the reader feel clever, right?”). However, every so often one gem comes along that sweeps readers off their feet, breaks through into the mainstream, and dominates airport book stores for years to come. Gone Girl is one such well-deserved hit.