NW by Zadie Smith

If I had to describe Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW, I’d say ‘brilliant but difficult.’ That’s a compliment, but at the same time I can see why many readers would drop out along the way. This is a novel set in a distinct geographical area of London, the NW (Northwest) of the title, but specifically focusing on Willesden–an area with a vast social history:

A great hill straddles NW, rising in Hampstead, West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden, Brondesbury, Cricklewood. It is no stranger to the world of letters. The Woman in White walks up one side to meet the highwayman Jack Sheppard on the other. Sometimes Dickens himself comes this far west and north for a pint or to bury someone. Look, there on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local History: a knotted condom filled with sperm. Once this was all farm and field with country villas nodding at each other along the ridge of this hill. Train stations have replaced them, at half-mile intervals.

That passage gives the essence of the author’s style–a vibrant cacophony of voices and colliding lives in this exploration of class and race through friends and their relationships. At the heart of the story are two women–friends from childhood. Keisha has moved on from her beginnings and transformed into Natalie while her friend Leah appears to be locked in the past–stuck on the spot, left wondering about the validity of her choices while the rest of the world whirls by. Has Natalie matured, and this is the novel’s great question, or is maturity just another way of describing an upwardly mobile, affluent life?

The novel begins with Leah, a young white woman of Irish background, who lives with Michel, a French hairdresser of African descent, opening the door to the apparently distressed Shar. Leah’s neighbourhood is questionable, and even opening the door and letting this young woman in–someone who attended the same underachieving school, is an act of bravery, and even a sort of social defiance as it later turns out. The intruder is Shar, and she wants money, she claims, to go and visit her ill mother in the hospital. As in often true in good Samaritan acts, the decision to help Shar is based in Leah’s perception of herself, and this is our introduction to Leah.

This seemingly small incident has a ripple effect with serious ramifications for Leah. For Leah, time has stood still since she finished “three years of useless study” which culminated in the collection of a degree in Philosophy which has no practical application and does not translate to her employment as “the only white girl on the Fund Distribution Team.” Leah seems disconnected with her life, as if she washed up, shipwrecked in this place, in a relationship with no idea exactly how she arrived there.

Meanwhile Leah’s childhood friend, Natalie aka Keisha, “the girl that done good,” now a married barrister, invites Leah and Michel to dinner parties at their posh home, and it’s here amongst the other guests, that Leah and Michel stick out rather uncomfortably. Not that Michel seems to notice.

Nothing in Leah’s childhood prepared her for the frequency with which she now attends dinner parties, most often at Natalie’s house, where she and Michel are invited to provide something like local colour. Neither of them know what to say to barristers and bankers, to the occasional judge. Natalie cannot believe that they are shy. Each time she blames some error of placement but each time the awkwardness remains. They are shy, whether Natalie believes it or not. They have no gift for anecdote. They look down at their plates and cut their food with great care, letting Natalie tell their stories for them, nodding to confirm points of fact, names, times, places. Offered to the table for general dissection these anecdotes take on their own life, separate, impressive.

I can’t review the book without touching on the author’s style, and at this point I’ll add that I am not a fan of experimental writing. Don’t hand me a book that has pages without punctuation and even stream of consciousness is pushing it. These techniques may be fun for the author, but they annoy me.  Nonetheless, with these prejudices in mind, some of Zadie Smith’s stylistic decisions worked excellently, and she’s a genius for dialogue. Here for example, is a passage from one of Natalie’s swanky dinner parties. You can almost hear the dishes and cutlery, the mastication of the teeth, and the banal comments made to the person on the right by her upwardly mobile, and smug guests, safe in the cocoon of their ever-growing affluence.

Many of the parents are immigrants–from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China–and they can’t understand why they have not yet been invited to live with their children, as is the custom, in their countries. Technology is offered as a substitute for that impossible request. Stairlifts. Pacemakers. Hip replacements. Dialysis machines. But nothing satisfies them. They worked hard so that we children might live like this. They “literally” will not be happy until they’ve moved in our houses. They can never move in our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. What do you think, Samhita, yeah what do you think, Samhita, what’s your take on this?  Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carnage of a 4×4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn’t come cheap.

Other stylistic maneuvers did not work so well for this reader. The lack of inverted commas, at least for the first part of the book caused me to wonder, more than once, who was saying what, or even if these statements were thoughts rather than speech. While the first section of the novel concerns Leah, the second section moves ahead with Felix, a recovering drug addict who think he’s putting his past behind him and moving forward in a new relationship with the dynamic Grace. At first there was a sense of frustration that Leah was more or less left behind while Felix’s story developed. This section, however, was so good, I quickly forgot my grumbling and submerged myself into Felix’s story as he buys a dilapidated sports car from upper class Tom, the sort of person we might find sitting around the table at one of Natalie’s soirées.  

One of the novel’s very best scenes takes place between Felix and Annie, his former fellow addict and sometime sex partner. It’s in this scene that the entire notion of ‘getting ahead’ and ‘moving on’ is dragged out into the open and trammelled on by the very confident and self-possessed Annie. Note the appearance of inverted commas:

“You listening? Next level. People can spend their whole lives just dwelling. I could spend my whole life dwelling on some of the shit that’s happened to me. I done that. Now it’s time for the next level. I’m moving up in the game. And I’m ready for it.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve grasped the metaphor, you don’t have to keep repeating it.”

Annie lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled it through her nose.

“Life’s not a video game, Felix–there aren’t a certain number of points that send you up to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is that everyone dies at the end. Game over.”  

It’s these sorts of vibrantly alive scenes that, for this reader, made up for the rest of the novel’s difficult moments. After finishing the book, I found myself returning and chewing over Annie’s arguments. She’s arguably one of the most fucked up people in the book, and yet she’s intelligent, coherent, perfectly comfortable in her own skin, and living in poverty. She is mentally in the sort of place that Leah can’t seem to reach. Leah is being propelled ahead by the current, but she’s not altogether copacetic with ‘moving up,’ and Leah, who is “faithful in her allegiance” to her roots certainly doesn’t want to be the sort of person that Natalie has become. There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent to the lives of these Londoners, and the novel questions society’s notions of “the next level.” Acquiring affluence is arguably a questionable goal, and yet that is the quest for the characters here who appear to succeed in a sink or swim society while other lost characters, Nathan Bogle is just one example, are wrecked and washed up by crack. I found myself wondering what would happen in Zadie Smith’s NW if we mixed up the characters a bit and invited Annie to Natalie’s table? Would Annie and Leah be friends? Would Felix admire Michel? How would someone like Natalie cope with someone as potentially myth-puncturing as Annie? These are all rhetorical questions, of course, because that’s the whole point of ‘moving on.’ You drop those people who no longer fit in.

A writer of Zadie Smith’s standing can get away with a lot of idiosyncratic moves that would trash a newer, humbler writer. The Big Questions here, and each reader will decide independently, are whether 1) the novel works and 2) whether Zadie Smith is aware of the unevenness and inconsistencies of the novel. For this reader, it’s a resounding yes to both questions.

Thanks to John Self at Asylum for recently interviewing Zadie Smith and reviewing the book.

Review copy.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Smith Zadie

15 responses to “NW by Zadie Smith

  1. Brian Joseph

    Guy, I think that we discussed this before, but I actually like the stream of consciousness and other experimental styles. The way I look at it, 95% of what I read will be in a conventional style. I enjoy reading something different 5% of the time. For what it is worth, the vast majority of people that I discuss this with, are with you on this one.

    I also like the sound of the story. The entire analysis of our perception of success, failure doing better in life, etc., is very interesting and in some ways gets to the heart of the modern word.

    • I can be very intolerant w/ experimentation. The last experience was a book with absolutely NO punctuation, so it was one long rambling sentence. The experimentation in this novel could be seen as flaws in the writing, but clearly Zadie Smith knows what she is doing. Not using inverted commas in the first part and then using them later is not sloppiness but a decison. Fading one character and bringing out another is a similar decision. I got over my prejudices which says a lot about how much I liked the book.

  2. I still haven’t read her White Teeth, so that will come first. Wasn’t that written in a much more conventional style?
    I like the idea of rooting the novel so deeply in a specific area of London. It’s not new but I still like it.
    I find it interesting to have two charcaters whose perception of the place they are in – poverty sort of – is so different. I’ve met people who were quite comfortable with having less.

    • That’s what drew me to the novel, too Caroline, and that’s also been the attraction to some of Ruth Rendell’s more recent novels–the concentration on specific geographical London neighbourhoods. As I said to Leroy, I haven’t read the backlist, but I have the TV series of White Teeth which I haven’t yet watched.

      I think part of what Zadie Smith is saying is that the pursuit of the material is rooted in emptiness, but at the same time it’s seen as natural and admirable. Part of the dinner table scene includes the guests haranguing Leah with the argument, “but don’t you want the best for your kids” type of thing. Which is the standard argument, I think. It also comes off as fake since we’ve just heard about how this generation have more or less abandoned their elderly relatives while plying them with material bribes.

  3. I haven’t read NW yet, but your description of the dinner party scene(s) and Smith’s upwardly mobile, striving Londoners–engaged in the topics of the day from a safe distance–reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s Manhattanites in Bonfire of the Vanities. However, if memory serves me (it’s been quite a while) all of those characters had a somewhat cartoonish quality to them.

  4. leroyhunter

    I’m not reallykeen on her earlier stuff but this has piqued my fancy. After John’s review I picked it up, so interesting to see what you thought Guy. I hope to get to it soon (but I seem to be saying that about dozens of books these days).

    • Leroy: I haven’t read any of Zadie Smith’s backlist and to be honest, the hype put me off. The brilliance here is in her dialogue, the social milieu, and the characterisations. The so-called weaknesses are clearly deliberate stylistic decisions–whether we like them or not is another matter. I thought a lot about the pressures of a first-time author–the pressure to conform to the norms and at the same time, the pressure to produce something ‘extraordinary.’

  5. I liked Bonfire of the Vanities, and I think you would too Guy.

    Anyway, just got round to reading this review and I’m glad I did. Nice choice of quotes, and it was interesting to hear about the stylistic choices (particularly the use/non-use of quotation marks).

    The change of name from Keisha (working class) to Natalie (middle class) tells a story all its own, as of course it’s intended to. The dinner parties too sound true (truly ghastly, but true). Keeping to your roots, I always wondered why that was so praised. I grew up on a shitty council estate, why would I want to be true to that? What would it mean to be so? In hip-hop the idea of “keeping it real”, of not forgetting the street, is constantly praised but of course people work so hard in that game precisely because it’s a route the hell away from the street.

    At the same time, there is something distasteful in those who so thoroughly forget their origins that they forget any empathy with those they were once part of. Tricky stuff. Anyway, I’ll probably check this out, it tempts me more than her back catalogue.

    • It’s not the easiest read, Max, and uneven in posts, but as a Londoner it would probably hit you in an entirely different way. I have White Teeth on my shelf unread. The entire status evaluation made the book worth reading, at least for me.

  6. I wonder why I missed this review. You know I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t stand Leah.

  7. Pingback: Zadie in Metroland | Book Around The Corner

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