London lives

NWby Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, about the intersecting lives of a group of North Londoners, was one of the big publishing events of the late summer. Many other bloggers managed to read and review it much nearer its publication date – see Just William’s LuckAsylum and Words of Mercury for some eloquent posts.

Although I really hail from the Surrey borders, growing up in and around Croydon and then university in London means I consider myself more of a south, or sarf if you will, Londoner. Smith’s book may be set geographically in Willesden to the NW of the city, but as a community, it shares many of its attributes with other similar neighbourhoods around the capital: ethnically diverse, large high-rise estates, but gentrifying in certain quarters.  One thing though, the inhabitants of NW don’t go south” if they can help it!

NW is really the stories of two childhood friends: Leah and Keisha (who changes her name to Natalie. In between their lives are shorter sections about Felix and Nathan, before a final short section that brings everything together at carnival weekend.

Leah’s story is first. She’s of Irish descent – a product of the Caldwell estate. She’s married to Michel, a French-African and they have a nice flat in one of the houses outside the estate, no children – yet.

Question: what happened to her classmates, those keen young graduates, most of them men? Bankers, lawyers. Meanwhile Leah, a state-school wild card, with no Latin, no Greek, no maths, no foreign language, did badly – by the standards of the day – and now sits on a replacement chair borrowed six years ago from the break room, just flooded with empathy. Right foot asleep. Computer screen frozen. IT nowhere to be seen. No air-conditioning. Adina going on and on, doing that thing to language that she does.

… What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth. … Philosophy is learning how to die. Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you ever have been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be. … Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone. Never, never forgotten: the bastard in that first class, sniggering. I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY, Leah writes, and doodles passionately around it. Great fiery arcs, long pointed shadows.

From the above quotes, you may surmise that Leah is rather unsatisfied with her life, yet she actually enjoys not being a high-flyer.

Her mother Pauline still lives on the estate, a volatile Irishwoman who knows everyone and never stops talking. Leah and Pauline are out and about and they bump into Nathan. He was at school with Leah, and Pauline introduces them again, and Leah remembers…

He smiles shyly at Leah. Aged ten he had a smile! Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.

The structure of this section is intermittently experimental – featuring occasional shaped passages of text – a tree-shaped page – about an apple tree; a mouth-shaped one about Leah’s boss Adina who talks too much. They’re novelties though, distracting from the real story which progresses through Leah’s thoughts and conversations. The dialogue is cracking though – particularly Leah and her mum talking at each other, quite typical mother and daughter verbal badinage.

In the second section, we follow one day in the life of Felix, a young man who is venturing into the West End to make a deal on a car. On the way home he calls in on a girlfriend intending to break it off although it doesn’t go as Felix plans. Although Annie is totally messed up, she has a spark which makes her interesting.

Onwards to Keisha. We get her whole life story told in chronological bitesize chunks. She and Leah are bonded by an ‘event’  – she saved Leah from drowning in the paddling pool when they were four.  As Keisha’s life moves forward, she works hard at school, changes her name to a less ethnic one – Natalie and ultimately becomes a highly successful lawyer, with a rich Italian husband and two children. She has it all, but it doesn’t make her happy.

In fact, the moments of happiness are few and far between in this novel. Everyone was skirting about their relationships, afraid of trying hard enough to make them last, and confused about the role of being a parent. I found it rather sad – and realistic.  What did make it come alive though, as I’ve already mentioned, was the dialogue. It was full of natural wit, funny and sharp when it needed to be, and, to quote Catherine Tate’s TV character Lauren, had a dose of ‘whatever’.

For me, NW didn’t need the different styles to the sections; the changing lead characters gave sufficient focus. This was the first novel by Smith that I have read – I enjoyed it, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. (8/10)

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher. Thank you.
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NWby Zadie Smith. Published by Hamish Hamilton, Aug 2012. Hardback 304 pages.


9 thoughts on “London lives

  1. I’m just writing a piece on White Teeth which has a similar mixture of strenghts and weaknesses but the overall energy and really successful parts made it worth reading.

    • One day I will read White Teeth Seamus. Glad to hear it is worth reading. There are some wonderful bits of writing in this book that don’t need gimmicks, although arguably Keisha’s story in the bitesized chunks does work telling a whole life in around 100 pages. I’m sure you’ll enjoy NW too.

  2. I’ve had White Teeth for ages but never got past the first couple of pages – although admittedly I can’t say I have tried too hard.
    NW sounds interesting, not least because my younger son and his girlfriend will be moving to that neck of the woods in the next few months and senior daughter already lives in Edgware (although I’m not sure if that counts as London these days!)

    Probably better to dust down my copy of White Teeth first though and see what I make of that with a bit of effort!

    • NW was easy to read Liz – no trouble getting into it at all. I hope White Teeth works this time if you do try it again.

  3. I felt it was her best since white teeth I read it when it got on booker not sure I ll be reviewing it just yet ,but great cross section of london ,I like the choppy short chapters in the last part best ,all the best stu

  4. Leah’s clamorous meanderings through NW London are miles beyond a simple hat-tip to James Joyce – Smith has such a command of language here that she’s able to transport her readers to the noisy city streets of her neighborhood as creatively and effortlessly as Joyce in Ulysses . Although Smith’s raucous sentences lack the deeper significance of Joyce’s controlled cacophony, there is an impressive rhythm to this section of NW that will please many readers. Here, Smith is a receptor, transmitting sound and vision into words: “The window logs Kilburn’s skyline. Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety rollercoaster. Higgledy piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box.” But once the curtain falls on NW’s first act, Smith takes a sharp turn into a new story and a new, less riveting style of writing. Felix, a man from a different corner of NW London, is introduced and Smith follows him for what turns out to be terribly eventful single day. Similar to Shar’s character in the novel’s first section, Felix forces readers to reflect on Leah’s middle-class life and see that despite her frustrations she has things pretty well sorted out. When we first meet him, Felix is still trying to gain his footing and put his drug-using, multiple-partner past behind him. He has his mind set on buying a broken-down car from an online listing with hopes of repairing the vehicle and turning a profit. Later, Felix visits one of the women he’s been seeing, intending to tell her that he wants to begin a monogamous relationship with someone else and that she can longer be his girl on the side.

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