I read this book with Rowena so I'm writing with the benefit of her illuminating comments. You can read her review here.
The book is divided into sections narrated by different characters. Our first storyteller is Leah, a young white woman from North West London with Irish parents, married to a black African francophone immigrant, Michel. The initial encounter Leah has with a young woman begging for help at her door reveals her generous nature, while the fragmentary style of the writing seems designed to show us the style of her thought. We learn that Leah is resisting uncomfortable pressure on her from all sides to get pregnant. We realise that she and Michel have got married hastily, each naive about the other's life plans. While Michel has unexamined patriarchal attitudes playing out in his relationship to Leah, claiming her property, being & body as his own, she has been attracted by his beauty and kindness, and for her the relationship is based on lust.
I was struck by the way Leah's encounter with the desperate woman was reconstructed by Michel and her mother, and how this changed her behaviour. This kind of skilfully handled detail built up an impression of Leah as very passive and easily swayed, like my younger self. I found Leah and her mother Pauline very realistic as white people who have generationally graduated levels of ignorance about race. While Pauline is ridiculous and ignorant in her attitudes, Leah is embarrassed by her mother's racism, but she is no more able to see whiteness; Smith shows this very skilfully though Leah's resentful and self-pitying feelings about her relationships with her co-workers, particularly her black boss. By presenting this from Leah's viewpoint without author-voice judgement or caricature, Smith helps me to see the same attitudes in myself forgivingly but critically.
Leah narrates encounters with her black friend Natalie and her husband and children. Leah sees her as grown up and her life as meaningful - this is partly conferred by motherhood - only giving birth legitimises a woman's existence, according to the overt & implicit messages Leah constantly receives from husband, mother, friends. Natalie remains mysterious; Leah does not seem to understand anyone very well and especially lacks self awareness.
There is a wonderful middle section of the book narrated by Felix, a character whose story intersects only briefly with the core narrative around Natalie and Leah. I think Smith has written this section because it's important to her that this character be a site of empathy in the book, rather than a stereotyped stock figure. She breathes life into everyone as far as possible; I feel she takes pains to stop us from making assumptions, while at the same time drawing on familiarity to create recognition and identification. She uses dialogue to this end, very acutely observed as critics have praisingly noted, though it makes the book almost untranslatable and probably very difficult for readers unfamiliar with British English.
Natalie/Keisha is the most fully realised character and has the clearest, most direct style. Shar, the desperate young woman Leah initially encounters, remembers her from high school as 'coconut'. This excellent article helped me to understand more about this racist term, and how it is used both by white and black people to criticise black people, usually because they are successful, hard working etc, as if, ridiculously, these are 'white' traits. Keisha Blake feels out of place in her own life; she seems to lack helpful role models. She changes her name to Natalie and pursues a high-powered career.
There is a brilliantly crafted tension between perceptions of Natalie. She is stereotypically seen as concerned with social justice because she is black - she does not actually articulate such a commitment. Her blackness is exploited in court for this purpose - to whitewash. She is courted by controversial clients who only want to use her as a fig-leaf for their unethical behaviour. For this she is lectured by her mother and friends. Her sister and old friends snub her for being insincere and lacking self-awareness - their criticisms hurt because they are laced with painful truth.
I found this piece very helpful to my understanding of the relationship between Natalie and Leah. I urgently wanted both of them to wise up, but Smith remained true to them and the realism of the novel and resisted such temptations. As it is, the book's commentary on vital, highly relevant issues of racism and sexism is sophisticated and enlightening. Another dimension was introduced in the case of Natalie's husband Frank; although black, he was raised solely by his wealthy white Italian mother and suffers a strangely nuanced isolation. His story makes me think of black (and others who are not white) children who are adopted into white families.
I felt that the plot was the least successful aspect of the book; the late stages of drama were protracted and lacked the rich emotional resonance that made other parts, such as Natalie's childhood memories, so haunting and captivating.