First Novel Phenomenon

We took on two first novels at book club this month, and both caused something of a sensation on release. Very different books, and one in particular had an enormous effect on my teenage years when I read it many years ago.

I remember when Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came out at the beginning of the century and the buzz it caused. This tale of the lives of two wartime friends, one Bangladeshi and the other English, and their sprawling families, was a smash on release and made a superstar of its author. I never had much of an inkling to read it at the time, never being one for the popular read, so it passed me by. It is an amazingly accomplished work for a first novel, particularly from a writer aged just 25, and contains a cynical humour and pathos that I really liked. The themes it explores are weighty and really relevant to today’s society too.

Immigration and the assimilation of immigrants is a political hot potato no matter which side of the world you are on. The efforts of Samad and his family to integrate into British society form the backbone of the novel. Putting down roots is a major metaphor (hence the White Teeth title) and all the first-generation immigrants in the book face a struggle in trying to do so.

The second generation find it even more difficult; the children of Archie and Samad, despite being born in Britain, seem to have no further connection to their country of birth than their parents. They also turn against the influences of their parents in an attempt to find their own way – Millat being the most extreme of these, a rebellious womaniser who ends up being radicalised into an Islamic fundamentalist. The quest for assimilation ends up alienating the children from their parents.

These themes are woven expertly into the book by Smith, and shot through with the off-beat humour already mentioned. Despite being 15 years old the book remains really relevant today, as sadly many countries in the world face real problems from homegrown terrorism. In fact I would call the book very prescient in that way.

That’s not to say it is without its flaws – the ending of the book feels rushed and ties up the loose ends in an abrupt fashion. This was an almost universal criticism. The writing style changes and it feels jarring, as if Smith didn’t quite know how to pull everything together and got into a panic. Which is a great shame as it mars what up until then had been an enjoyable read.

I first read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a 10 year old at primary school, which in hindsight was a brave decision on the part of my teachers. The violence and savagery of the book has stayed with me ever since, and it was fascinating to re-read after all these years and assess my feelings about it from an adults perspective. I would now say this is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Why? Well, first and foremost it is a brilliantly written adventure story. Place a group of teenage boys on an uninhabited desert island and see what happens. The possibilities are endless, and Golding takes us down some very dark roads and into the shadows. As a kid this was the first book I’d ever read that opened my eyes to the dark potential of what my peers and I were capable of, and this thought was overwhelming and a little frightening. As the group dynamic begins to disintegrate and Jack and his band of hunters escape into the forest, the tension ratchets up notch by notch. Something terrible is going to happen, and its inevitability is both depressing and exciting. Once Simon and then Piggy are killed in acts of mindless savagery the destruction is complete and civilisation has been destroyed.

It was the sheer plausability of this scenario that got to me then and still discomforts  me now. How far away are we from total destruction? Would a group of boys today behave in such a manner? I think I know the answer, and it is a troublesome thought.

I think the books unique brilliance is its utter refusal to allow any sentimentality about childhood to enter the narrative. I think it is almost inevitable for this to happen when adults write about children – its hard to reminisce without becoming a little misty-eyed. This is the only novel I can think of which does so, and with complete success. I think it is peerless in its field and should be sought out and read by all.