The first thing I noticed about this book is that the cover looks a lot like the cover of On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which I tried to read once and couldn’t get into.
I’d like to point out here that I have a long history of attention problems which have only gotten worse with age / struggles with mental illness. At the time I tried to read On Beauty, I was in the middle of a phase where I had particular trouble with this, so don’t take my word on what that book is like, because we’re not here to talk about it anyway. I only mention it because the similarity in book covers made me think they might be from the same author (I didn’t remember who it was) and I think that prejudiced me slightly against it.
So maybe my impression of the first chapter and a half was influenced by that. It was also influenced by the fact that since this project demands that I read ALL the books in the English section of the library, I just picked it up without reading the blurb on the back cover. Turns out, the blurb isn’t just there to help you pick which book you want to buy or borrow; it also provides key information about the nature of the book, such as the fact that this is one of those books where each chapter follows a different character, making it a bit like a collection of short stories all set in the same place and time. Instead, I dived straight in thinking all the chapters were going to be like the first one, which spoiled it for me a bit. Maybe I should re-read chapter 1, because Joao is an interesting character, if only because none of the other characters think much of him. To them, he’s just one of the local elders, a poor old man who lives on his own and keeps a pig.
You know that game people play where they pick out a stranger in the street and imagine a whole life for them? I’m guessing Monica Ali knows that game well, and that’s what’s so fun about this book: you get to know each character from the inside, but then you also see them from the outside, through the eyes of the others. It show how deep and complex each of them is, from the obese and bitter bartender to the ex-druggie living in her trailer with her deadbeat husband and hopeless, snotty kids to the young girl who thinks her capacity for observation ought to make her stand out more, unaware of her own self-centeredness and naïvete. In each of these people there’s something to like and something to hate, and a ton of matter in between, but you only know that for the length of their chapter. Outside of that, you see them through the eyes of the other characters, for whom they are two-dimensional extras in film of which they are the protagonist.
This game of changing viewpoints comes to a head at the end of the book, where the point of view keeps changing, contrary to the rest, and centers around the arrival of this one mysterious character who everyone’s been waiting for, and who, when he arrives, refuses to reveal anything about his own inner world and motives, even when confronted directly. The characters’ speculation, their vain attempts to put him in a box the way they so easily do with everyone else, reflects our own tendency to categorise everyone we see based on prejudice, and the unease we feel when we find someone we can’t classify.
There are some characters who you only get to know through the point of view of someone close to them; which makes their reactions in certain circumstances surprising: I’m thinking of Eileen’s portrait of her husband, which makes us think their marriage is doomed to failure, but at the end of the chapter he shows that he is capable of trying to understand her, if she just communicates frankly.
At times, I felt frustrated not knowing how some of the stories ended. How does Teresa manage in London? What happens to Ruby? How did the Pottses manage in the end? But that’s also the beauty of the book: it’s about people. Peoples’ stories don’t end, they succeed one another, one story leading onto the next. The book gives an inside into the inner lives of several different people, leaving us guessing the end of their stories, but we know that the characters are each so absorbed in their own story that they’re not wondering about the others, like we are. The message I take away from it is that we should wonder, even in real life, even without that insight, about what happened to that friend we had in primary school, that teacher, that neighbour of your dad’s. Just wondering what their inner lives were like allows us to imagine them complexely, and that, dear reader, is how books make us better people.