In some ways this is like Midnight’s Children but, being shorter and with a more photogenic author, it caught on more quickly. The prose-style isn’t quite as chatty but has a lot of well-practiced spontaneity and quirk; it reads a bit like Dylan Thomas and, with the Mock-Serious Use of Capitals for Important Topics, a bit like Winnie the Pooh. It begins in the present (at time of writing) and flashes back to 1969, with flashbacks inside the flashbacks.
As you probably know, the author is as famous for her campaigning and protests as for this one (bestselling) book so, for anyone coming to the novel for the first time now, it seems peculiarly whimsical for someone so committed. The point seems to be that such a division between ‘serious’ (i.e. like Europeans) and ‘frivolous’ is an artificial, imposed construction. Despite the horrible and bizarre things that happen to this family the tone is resolutely Jackanory because that tone is in itself a form of defiance. Back in the 90s a lot of writers thought that resisting something was, indirectly, reinforcing it. This book barely notices the outside influences and concentrates on the local, emphasising that world’s values over the ‘official’ ones. It’s a trick Jane Austen also used, downplaying the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution in favour of a bubble-universe where feminine values outweighed the others.
After this was published we had a lot of books from second-generation minority female authors, so it’s possible you’ve seen this clustered with Small Island, White Teeth, Brick Lane and others. Amazon seems to think if you buy one you’ll buy all of these. They aren’t interchangeable. Twenty years on, we can now judge the book for itself and see its style and subject-matter as deliberate choices rather than just being what the author’s like.
By Tat Wood