on 3 September 2012
NW is a brave departure for Zadie Smith and one that could potentially alienate a large proportion of her readership. It is an odd and fragmentary novel, humourless and bland. The melodious prose and multiple plots have given way to a modish Modernism; Dickens's influence has been erased, the 'hysterical realism' utterly subdued. But that is to be expected. Novelists do not have to keep rehashing a working formula, and it says something of Smith's integrity that she has decided to move on. The new style, then, is encapsulated in the narrative's stuttering and spare composition, a complete reversal of the seamless unity of her last three novels.
The novel follows a group of thirtysomethings from the same Caldwell council estate - Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan. Each character carries the burden of urban ennui: Leah is in the midst of an existential crisis, while her closest friend Natalie (formerly Keisha) is a class-conscious barrister seeking some excitement; Felix, however, is a wide boy recovering alcoholic similar to Nathan, who simply shuffles through the pages as a homeless junky. All the usual themes are accounted for (identity, class, race, drugs, love, work, death, guilt, redemption), but as Smith's interest in each character is asymmetrical, it makes the book unbalanced. It flows best as a procession of snapshots replicating the random movements of a city. But, to follow Smith down this structural and experimental route, the characters must be interesting, and sadly they are not.
The depth just isn't there, each one barely knowable. Instead of total characterisation, there are only pointed and evocative shards, the broken bottle approach leaving the process of reassembly in the reader's hands. Such, though, is the way with Modernism. But if the protagonists offer no interest (except for Felix), then we must take London itself as the main focus, for it is London (and Smith perfectly transcribes the city's cacophonous rhythms in short poetic passages) that infuses the novel with life. It is the aloof and indifferent backdrop to the action, a riot of multicultural beauty; what a shame it is, then, that the characters flitting through Smith's pulsating and carefully assembled capital seem so stale.
Overall, though, NW is an interesting novel, a valid exercise in style. It may have its failings, but this is a transitional work in Smith's oeuvre. She is adjusting her voice and modifying her delivery. The better novels will surely follow.
on 30 September 2012
Modernism is fashionable again. First we had Will Self's 'Umbrella' and now we have Zadie Smith's 'NW'. Both novels use modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness and multiple narratives. Both are set in and around north London. But whereas Self's novel is largely set in the north London suburbs of Barnet, Muswell Hill and East Finchley, Smith's 'NW' moves the dial anti-clockwise and is set in north-west London. Or to be more precise, Willesden. But is 'NW' north west London - or is it 'Nowhere'? A play on 16th century statesman and author Thomas More's famous book about Nowhere - 'Utopia'? If it is, then Smith's utopia is more of a dystopia. Willesden is less the land of milk and honey and more the place of skunk and money. As in many London towns, deprivation lives on the next street to wealth.
The novel revolves around a long friendship: 30-something Natalie (once Keisha) Blake is a successful barrister with two young children from her marriage to handsome banker, Frank. Leah Hanwell, a philosophy graduate, works for a non-profit organisation and lives in a council flat with her Franco-African partner Michel - a man intent on making money through share trading over the Internet. Both Natalie and Leah grew up on the same Caldwell council estate in Willesden. An estate which may well have been responsible for Leah's interest in philosophy since each block is named after an icon of the subject: Smith, Hobbes, Bentham, Locke, Russell. The girls' friendship therefore goes way back, but when we first meet them Leah is irritated by Natalie's social and professional ascendancy as well as her well-attended dinner parties. Natalie has climbed the social ladder whilst Leah has remained pretty much on the first rung. And friction ensues.
Felix Cooper is another character in the book. But unlike Nathan Bogle who both girls knew at school, Felix is someone neither Leah or Natalie know. Their connection is only one of place - they lived on the same estate as youngsters. Felix's story, tragically cut short, is one of a struggle to overcome the troubles of his past and to try and do better.
The novel is split into 5 sections: 'visitation'; 'guest'; 'host'; 'crossing'; 'visitation'. Each section focuses on either one or two characters: 'visitation' focuses on Leah Hanwell; 'guest' focuses on Felix Cooper; 'host' on Natalie; 'crossing' on Natalie and Nathan Bogle; and 'visitation' on Leah and Natalie. Natalie therefore gets more space than the other characters - so the novel is uneven in this respect. And this is a problem: Natalie is simply not interesting enough. Smith acknowledges that Natalie is a cliche and she plays on this - but this doesn't help to make her any more compelling for the reader. It's boringly predictable that her seemingly successful marriage to the wealthy Frank is in fact 'a double act [where both of them] only speak to each other when they are on stage' (p.224). It's even more predictable that Natalie goes off in search of sexual adventures during what is plainly a stock-standard mid-life crisis. In contrast, Felix is a far more engaging character - but his time in the limelight is over all too quickly.
By far the best chapter is 'guest'. It focuses on Felix and the narrative fizzes along because he is simply more interesting than either Leah or Natalie. A recovering addict, Felix is trying hard to put his life back together and we first meet him happily clowning around in bed with his beloved girlfriend, Grace. But old habits die hard when Felix pays what is to be his final visit to his old flame, Annie. A 40-something, bohemian from a privileged background, Annie lives in run-down rooftop flat in Soho. Felix is determined to amicably and dispassionately end his affair with Annie so that he can devote his life to Grace. But the sight of Annie's naked body reclining in the sun on a late August afternoon is too much for him to resist...
The passages featuring Annie and Felix are devastatingly good. They sparkle with brilliance.
The chapter titled 'host' is made up of 185 numbered sections which provide a chronological narrative of Natalie's life from childhood to adulthood. Each sub-section is numbered because Natalie's life follows a predictable pattern: school; university; professional career, marriage; house; children. Her choices in life have been made with the motto 'safety first' firmly in mind. Hers is a portrait painted by numbers. As a consequence, she lacks any imagination 'due to a long process of neglect' (p.266). She is therefore a young woman who is simply one big cliche. At a charity event for a group of young black women, Natalie's speech is cliche-ridden. 'And it was only by refusing to set myself artificial limits,' explained Natalie Blake... 'that I was able to reach my full potential' (p.253)
It's only when Natalie steps off the conveyor belt that is her predictable middle class life and walks out on her husband and children that the numbered sections cease. The chapter which immediately follows Natalie's desertion - 'crossing' - describes her as having 'no name, no biography, no characteristics' (p.264). She sloughs off her respectable, middle class persona (for just the one night, mind you) and returns to the stomping ground of her youth. On the way, she bumps into her old school friend, Nathan. Unlike Natalie, Nathan has failed to move up and out of the council estate of his childhood. Smoking crack, Natalie becomes her former self: Keisha. Both she and Nathan wander aimlessly around north west London throughout the night. Smith is obviously returning Natalie/Keisha back to her roots. She's a young woman in a crisis in need of reality check. But this whole section simply doesn't work. Natalie has been carefully and methodically built up as someone who has studied hard to become an outwardly successful, image conscious, 30-something. So for her to suddenly reinhabit her teenage self and wander around London's dark streets with drug-addicted Nathan and smoking crack simply doesn't ring true.
Smith's comments on life in a modern, urban society as well as her philosophical insights are often perceptive and funny. Avoiding political engagement, 'only the private realm existed now [for the middle classes]. Work and home. Marriage and children. Now they only want to return to their own flats and live the real life of domestic conversation and television and baths and lunch and dinner' (p.221). Visiting a busy Italian beach on her honeymoon, Natalie notes how there are 'more bodies than sand' (p.204). Happiness is described as not being 'an absolute value. It is a state of comparison' (p.220). An article in a free newspaper is 'about an actress walking her dog in a park.' (p.41). And when Natalie attempts to have a threesome with two young Internet porn addicts, one of the boys (Dinesh) parrots lines from porn films 'All night long, baby. Till you're gonna be begging me to stop. Til six in the morning.' The riposte from his friend is hilarious: 'Dinesh, man, I gotta be at work at eight' (p.258).
What is also noteworthy in 'NW' is Smith's raising a subject that is all too rarely mentioned in novels or, more widely, the media: women who don't want to have children. So rare is it to find it being discussed that one reviewer of 'NW' referred to it as a 'taboo subject'. Leah enjoys sex, but 'fears the destination' that screwing Michel will take her to. She doesn't want to have children ostensibly because she is happy with her lot in life and 'any change risks fatally upsetting this balance' (p. 22). It's only in the 'NW's final pages that Michel discovers Leah's deception: she has been taking contraceptive pills to prevent the pregnancy he so desires. Leah's decision to not have children therefore largely remains a private one; its impact on those around her is never given room to be more fully explored.
Yet for all its periodic sparkling dialogue, perceptive insights, and raising of taboos, 'NW' fails to hang together as a novel. Is it because the novel is more an exercise in style(s) over content? Is it because the most interesting characters - Felix and Annie - are given so little 'stage time'? Is it because the novel is unbalanced - with the predictable Natalie getting the lion's share of the novel's 294 pages? Is it because the narrative doesn't flow (the chapter featuring Felix is a compelling novella sitting uncomfortably within a broader novel). It's probably all of these. So I can't understand why Smith regards this novel as her 'favourite by a long, long way'. It certainly isn't mine. At times, 'NW' sparkles and fizzes with brio, but the narrative takes us to NW - to nowhere.
on 22 August 2013
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 French-African 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 embodied in his relationship to Leah, claiming her property, being & body as his own, she has been attracted simply 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 her as very passive and naive. 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 more subtle, but she is unaware of white privilege; Smith shows this very skilfully though Leah's resentful and self-pitying feelings about her relationship with her co-workers.
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, herself included.
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 for whom British English is not the mother tongue.
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.
I took this for my holiday reading and, as I went to school in NW London / Middlesex, I found it a great in-joke. To me, Caldwell was a euphemism for the area between Kilburn - Queen's Park - Kensal Rise and Willesden (Harlesden end). I found it superbly funny; the prose is wonderful and the poems brilliant.
Zadie Smith is a true wordsmith in every sense of the word. Such a talented writer. I loved _On Beauty_, loosely based on _Howard's End_, and so "American", whereas this, is back to the wilds of Willesden & Kilburn.
Amazing! I was completely knocked out by Smith's literary versatility. The writing is non-linear, and reminded me of the film, 'Memento' where the plot is backwards, winding down from end at the start, to the beginning at the end. This was similar, but more circular, and retains some linear chronology, enough to forestall any confusion in the reader. Smith is such an expert at her craft, it is all seamless and she keeps a firm grasp of the plot. Writing styles such as Toni Morrison and the African-American/Caribbean or feminist female writers came to mind. The barrister allusion to the book _Ugly_ was unmissable, wherein the African-Carribbean barrister character gives Natalie a firm talking to, and refers to her as "sister". Great satire!
The Anglo-Irish character, Leah (Kilburn is one-third Irish descent) is well-crafted and shows that Smith has familiarity with her subject matter. Leah finds herself working for the council as the only white face amongst her team of inversely racist colleagues, green-eyed with envy over Leah's handsome black husband, Michel, who is caricatured as "Mi-chelle" and should have married one of them, his own kind.
Natalie, formerly known as Keisha, is the antithesis, desperate to climb the social ladder and escape her sink estate past. Hilarious scenes are derived from qualified barrister Natalie's chance encounter in Harlesden High Road with her sink estate cousin and young children complete with pram, with Natalie declaring, on the return visit to her cousin's council estate, "I can't bear to see you living like this!" which - of course - leads to the inevitable great offence caused to her kin and the ensuing row. Drama Queen! Excellent timing.
Smith's awesome strength is in her ability to bring out all of the layers upon layers of nuances in our covertly racist, class-ridden society, and she does it with the aplomb and acute social eye of the cutting stand-up comedian.
I am still chuckling at Keisha/Natalie's escapades with online sex dating, one week later. _NW_ really pulls off the fine line line between tragedy and comedy.
This was my favourite holiday read this year, out of _Stoner_ John Williams (great stuff!!! - very moving), _The One Hundred Year Old Man_ Johnsson (reminded me of Paaselinna _Year of the Hare_ - classic Scandinavian black satire) and _The Woman Who stayed in Bed for a Year_ by Sue Townsend (sorry, struggled to get past the tenth page, and even if my holiday had been longer, one would have read anything else on kindle in preference, and in fact, read, instead,on my kindle, _Brideshead Revisited_ by Evelyn Waugh, a marvellous book! [Sue Townsend, soz, loved Adrian Mole, will try again later, though!])
I cannot understand how people can simply have not immediately added _NW_ to their list of favourite books of all time! It is highly amusing, and of the highest art form.
The paperback is well designed enough to be a pleasure to hold and candy to the eye from the art work. I dig it. I really dig it!
I haven't read White Teeth or The Autograph Man, but when I read the first chapters of NW in the Guardian, I was gripped and had to buy it to find out what happens next. In the first couple of chapters Leah hears a knock on her front door as she is lying on a hammock in the oppressive heat in her rented flat's back garden. The woman at the door is someone Leah remembers going to school with; however, their lives have turned out quite differently. Leah is kind to the woman, Shar, but later comes to regret her act of generosity.
Leah is married to a guy called Michel, who wants them to start a family. A lot of the early chapters explore Leah's feelings of disappointment with how her life has turned out. She and Michel are friends with a barrister (the only one from their school to have been successful with her career) and a banker, and there are some beautifully observed passages about the dinner parties that Leah goes to with them.
The book is told from multiple narrators' points of view and later sections are narrated by Felix, Nathan, (who is linked to early events) and Natalie, the barrister. I enjoyed Natalie's section the best, though the final page of Felix's story is absolutely superbly written, I thought. Natalie's section is told in the form of little vignettes from her life. I found this absorbing - it was a bit like thinking back through a collection of memories.
The use of typesetting reminded me of Laurence Stern's Tristram Shandy at times - for example, on page 24 the words take the shape of an apple tree, and on page 49 the words represent bundles of leaflets being pushed through Shar's letter box.
There are a couple of things that puzzle me. One is that Leah uses an "old credit card" to hide a purchase from her husband, and at another point she has something that she has "taken" from a friend's bathroom. I do think I would notice if a friend took things from my bathroom!
However, overall this is the best novel about London life that I have read. It seems to me to embody the jumble of lives and fortunes that go to make up London and there are some reflections about life (mostly from Leah's perspective) that really made me stop and think. Apart from that, I think the writing is just sparkling. I know this book has been described as "patchy" in places, but I didn't see that as a problem, rather, it seemed to reflect the hubbub of life, and there's a bit of a sense of "stream of consciousness" as you are reading. As Leah observes at the dinner party, "Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots."
I am not sure that I tied up all the loose ends of the novel the way the writer intended, but it was a satisfying ending.
I am looking forward to reading Zadie Smith's other novels.
on 1 June 2014
I did read this through as I've liked Zadie Smith's other novels. My very personal view is that Zadie Smith is her own worse enemy as a novelist. She is hugely erudite about everything and can write wonderfully at times. Her critical articles are very insightful, if sometimes eccentric. But there is a wilful determination to be consciously a literary avant garde writer. I'm not surprised she's a good friend of Will Self. In trying to be obscure I think she wrecks a potentially moving and powerful novel. I hope her mext novel will bear more resemblance to White Teeth, which I think is a masterpiece.
on 19 May 2014
Really didn't enjoy this book, I found the prose hard to follow and lacked a gripping story line.
After starting the book thinking I knew which character was the key focus of the story, i felt like the author started writing one story about the first character and then didn't finish it. All the dots were eventually joined up between characters - which is fine as you expect that, but the join was thin and weak. Not my favourite read at all.
on 16 June 2014
Zadie Smith’s ‘NW’ follows four Londoners – Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan – after they’ve left their childhood council estate and moved on into their lives. It is very, very accomplished. Her dialogue is to-die-for and repays reading aloud (e.g. Phil Barnes’s brilliant soliloquy pp.111 et seq), and Natalie in particular is a great, poignant creation. However I didn’t understand what all the ‘clever’ structuring and playing with punctuation, etc, added. It made it often tricky to follow, which lessened rather than increasing my involvement. Some of the obliqueness was pleasing, but much of it felt like literary muscle-flexing and could lose many readers. Also it masked questions about plot and character that stretch credibility, e.g. Why doesn’t Leah just have the important conversation up front with her husband, who loves her to bits? We are never told.
Many readers of reviews get irate when reviews - whether positive or negative - are posted on books before people have finished reading them. My view is that the reader is like the diner in a restaurant: a plate of food is put in front of you, you take a few mouthfuls and you know whether or not you're going to enjoy the dish. You don't have to finish it to make a judgement either way.
Chapter 7 of NW starts like this: Apple tree, apple tree. Thing that has apples on it. Apple blossom, So symbolic. Network of branches, roots. Tunnelling under. The fuller, the more fruitful. The more the worms, the more the rats. Apple tree, apple tree. Apple. Tree. Which way is forward? Tick, tock. Three flats. One apple tree. Freehold, leasehold. Heavy with seed. In the treetop. When the bough breaks, the baby will Dead man's ashes. Round the roots, in the roots? Hundred-year-old apple tree. Sitting on your laurels. Under an apple tree. Have a little boy? New branches. New blossom. New apples. Same tree? Born and bred. Same streets. Same girl? Next step. Appletreeapple Trunk, bark. Alice, dreaming. Eve, eating. Under which nice girls make mistakes.
These sentence fragments are scattered all over the page like a parsley garnish. If this is your kind of thing, go for it - one man's meat and all that. But it was apparent pretty early on that this book was an exercise in style over substance and not for me. I'm afraid I had to send it back to the kitchen, virtually untouched.
on 24 February 2014
Not sure what this author is trying to do. Found this a somewhat chaotic read - maybe that was the idea. Found it a bit tricky to follow. When I finished reading I just felt a bit stupid - as if I'd missed something that I'm not clever enough to see!