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.