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57 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 'NW' takes us to nowhere, 30 Sept. 2012
This review is from: NW (Hardcover)
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.
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Location: London

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