Zadie Smith’s fourth novel NW has taken seven years to appear. Only elite novelists can get away with a gap that long, which sounds like a creative luxury but comes with the added pressure caused by a build-up of expectation. I was looking forward to it having really enjoyed her previous novel On Beauty (2005). It turns out that NW is a challenging book to read and review. There were moments I almost abandoned my attempts to do either, but I’m glad I persevered to the end. If as a well-read North Londoner I was incapable of assembling a few thoughts in response, that would be a failing on my part but would also leave me wondering who this book is written for.
If you don’t know London, there are 11 postal districts which begin with the geographical indicator NW. Thus the title refers, widely, to the ‘corner’ of London where Zadie Smith herself grew up, identifying several neighbourhoods including Kilburn, Willesden and Neasden. I live in a different part of North London, between affluent Muswell Hill and Wood Green, which is an ethnically diverse area far more like the setting of this book. I know many people who won’t set foot there and talk about it as if it’s the ‘hood, but I don’t mind it. Places like that may be down at heel, hard-edged but they’re real. Often in middle-class circles there is the sense of constructing a life according to an image, whereas in NW most people are just getting by the only way they know how and it seems the chances of escape are slim.
NW follows four people who grew up on the fictitious (but apparently recognisable) Caldwell council estate and are still living nearby – Leah, her childhood friend Natalie (formerly known as Keisha), Felix and Nathan – and the narrative is separated into four parts, the second half given over to Natalie’s point of view.
This is the story of a city, we’re told on the jacket, and that’s a fair assessment. For me, NW was definitely worth reading for the realistic depiction of London in all its aspects, not just of place but situation and dialogue, which Smith does brilliantly from pretentious dinner parties to confrontations between strangers in kids’ playgrounds. Although the novel opens with what appears a classic ‘inciting incident’ with distressed stranger Shar banging on Leah’s door for help in an emergency, there is an absence of narrative drive uniting the four sections which feel quite disconnected due to experiments in style (of which more in a moment), although they do link up in the end.
The characters aren’t so much developed as people as employed in the exploration of various big ideas such as identity, destiny and authenticity. It wouldn’t have been possible to get this across convincingly if the two female characters hadn’t broken free of their culture of low expectations to get a university education. Leah works for a lottery-funded body which gives grants to charities, and Keisha-turned-Natalie appears to ‘have it all,’ overcoming race and gender hurdles to achieve success as a barrister, with a handsome and charming husband, a posh house and two children. Social mobility is very much a preoccupation in the novel but the treatment is far from optimistic.
And so to style. At the York Festival of Writing recently, I attended an editing workshop in which we were told: ‘In a literary novel, the reader is prepared to work harder…’ That’s the theory, but I’m often surprised at how accessible many literary novels are. Maybe I’ve become lazy and less willing to put in the effort, but the first section of this novel, a full 84 pages, tested my patience to the limit. The combination of Leah Hanwell as a dissatisfied and self-absorbed character, the irritating rush to establish each person’s racial origins and the bizarre style – lots of sentences which are very short, unfinished or starting halfway through, lists, strange formatting – made this very tough to get into and what’s more, it seemed almost deliberate.
To my great relief, it didn’t last. The second part, through the eyes of Felix, reverted to a more conventional narrative style and I was immediately pulled into his world. The encounters with his drug-addled Russian agoraphobic ex-lover, a posh boy trying to sell him a car and some thugs on the Tube really sparkled with life, wit and menace; strange things happen all the time in big cities. I also enjoyed Natalie’s part of the narrative, audacious and unusual but at least I thought it worked this time, though in lesser hands it probably wouldn’t at all. It is related in 185 non-sequential and often completely random titled paragraphs from a sentence to several pages in length:
172. Box Sets
Walking down Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. ‘Slip into’ is an imprecise thought. Follow the Somali kid home? Sit with the old Russian lady at the bus stop outside Poundland? Join the Ukrainian gangster at his table in the cake shop?
By now I wasn’t trying to read NW as a regular novel and had accepted its strengths lay elsewhere: the stellar prose, the tiny flashes of resonance, the justice of an observation on society (Zadie Smith herself uses software to manage Internet addiction!), the satisfaction of decoding a cultural reference (the irony of the tower blocks being named Smith, Hobbes, Bentham, Locke, Russell – overdoing it? I can’t decide.)
I’m still really not sure who it is written for. The reaction which would interest me the most is that of the people who realistically are least likely to read it (although the image of a gangster reading NW in a cake shop is appealing…) My reading of NW leaves me with the uncomfortable suspicion that it contains subtexts far more intelligible to philosophers and sociologists (or just cleverer people) than they are to me.
That’s not something I look for in a book, but it does no harm occasionally.
Do you enjoy books that put you to work?
*BLOG FIRST BIRTHDAY COMPETITION COMING SOON!*
Thursday 20 September – lots of exciting literary and other prizes up for grabs, including a copy of NW.