This debut novel covers so much ground and is so epic in the proportion that it is hard to believe it is only set in North London. Following the fortunes of two families of different ethnicity this book covers the "salad bowl" culture of late 20th Century Britain with such wit, empathy and understanding I found it hard to put it down once I started reading.
I could see more than a little of myself, family and friends in the book and I am sure anyone living in London could see something they recognise. But that is not to say that this limits the story in any way because Ms Smith covers such a breadth of topics from WWII through to modern genetics.
The issues that it brings up are handled sensitively but with great humour. I particularly loved that the characters argue the multitude points of views without the author sounding preachy.
The book offers an insight into world events of the last quarter of a century from a multitude of atypical perspectives. From heated discussions as the Berlin wall comes, watched on Television, down to the rise of Islamic militancy in suburbia, whilst smoking grass in the schoolyard. It covers these topics almost with grace, always from the characters' perspective, always with humour and uncanny insights.
But central to what makes this novel work so well is the characters whom I found were three-dimensional and quirky. Whilst they fitted profiles I could recognise, they were not stereotypical in a cliched way. Through them, you feel you have experienced the hormonal energy of youth, the confusion of age and worries of domesticity. However, the twins sons seem to be there merely as symbolic backdrops, almost playing a role in a game which works its way through the final half of the novel.
Ultimately the books many threads come into an all too neat conclusion which whilst leaving the story finished makes the characters feel less real. This is one of those books that you wish would go on for longer and you get the sense the author just became tired and decided to conclude the story. However, the conclusion like the many plots that run through the novel is not merely distractions from the character development or examination of the issues this book raises. They are imaginative and exciting and the last part of the book will have you racing through it.
In summary, this is a most interesting look at the culture I grew up and I'm sure many will identify with the book. For others, it may offer an insightful look into issues of identity and ethnicity as well as the role of science, politics, religion and world events have to play on the everyday lives of people. But ultimately what makes this book so compelling is the empathy you will feel for the characters and the charm with which their many foibles are portrayed.