Sunday, October 21, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith

 There are a couple of spoilers in this review.

In her debut novel, "White Teeth", Zadie Smith showed herself to be a writer both of talent and bravery. This was a vibrant debut that seemed unafraid - especially impressive in one so young - to be a big, baggy novel of the city. She was immediately applauded by a generation of writers much older than her, as "the real thing." Her second book "The Autograph Man" showed that she had more interest in the work coming across the Atlantic, gathered around David Eggars and McSweeney's magazine, than in Amis and Barnes. Along with Nick Hornby she was adopted as a kind of British wing of this vibrant new literary school. "The Autograph Man" disappointed, though it started well enough, and it seemed that she was torn a little between the novel that she wanted to write and that which was expected of her. The broad middle class comedy of her debut was reduced a little to sitcom-like skits by the end of this sophomore work. In retrospect, the subject-matter, a nerdish autograph hunter, simply wasn't strong enough to hold a novel. "On Beauty" found her on sounder ground, but in its plot steals from "Howard's End" and its American campus setting it seemed a well-written but complacent affair; despite the praise it got.

"NW" is her first novel for seven years, an astonishing gap really, and its a curious return, that does, to some extent fuse some of the disparate aspects of her talent, whilst at the same time, seeming tentative - almost like a restart for her career. Like "White Teeth" it is a London novel, and like Amis or Barnes she seems happier in its enclaves, for its the one part of the country where race, ambition and money are as interchangeable in a character's lives as they were in Dickens time. Taking as its subject a group of young people who grew up on a poor, but not unfriendly estate, "the Caldwell", the character's seem to be making up for the lack of jeopardy that seemed a failing in the middle class lives in "On Beauty", by being never that far from personal and societal precipices. This is not John Lanchester's snapshot of a street in "Capital" but a portrait of social (im)mobility over an awkward twenty years - the decades either side of the millennium. Smith is mostly deft at the cultural signifiers, whether its drugs, items in the news, or pop culture. There's never been any doubt about the authenticity of her writing - and her observational skills in "NW" are more honed than in anything she's written since her debut. At the heart are two school friends, Leah and Keisha (later changing her name to Natalie), who remain friends even after their lives change in different ways. These two girls -women - are the aspirant middle class. White Leah is unhappy with her own lower middle-class background, and is drawn to both the rough boys at school, and has "a phase" as a lesbian with the girls she meets clubbing and socialising. Keisha is from a West Indian church family, and is always set aside from almost everyone, finding solace in a similarly church-y boyfriend, with whom she goes away to the same University with. Keisha is driven - and will eventually become that rarity, a black female barrister - whilst Leah's drive is almost all in the negative. The story pulls us back and forth through their lives - and the lives of others; Nathan, a beautiful boy at school who once his football career ends, ends up on the wrong side of the tracks, and Felix, who in his thirties is starting a new life, having got out and away from the troubles that once defned in him.

We make our own choices, it seems, but those choices are already taking us back full circle. Natalie can never quite stop being "Keisha" and doesn't want to in some ways - being drawn back to the Caldwell when the difficulties of living a life she doesn't ever quite feel belongs to here starts to become a problem - whilst Leah, though on the surface successful, and having married a good man, for lust, is never quite sure that the life that she should be hoping for - house, kids, job - is actually what she wants. And these are the two who through hard work and their own personalities and friendships have made their own choices. Keisha's sister Cheryl gets pregnant young, and never leaves the Caldwell. Like in all families, Natalie can never quite drag herself away from her roots - she is always Keisha to her sister and mother.

Smith is excellent on family and relationship dynamics, and the book is at its best, when the subtle tones of our family and friend relationships are being contrasted. Yet it is also a tricky novel, experimental in the way her previous books have only occasionally hinted at. The perspective changes, as does the time line, but so does the style. The incident that starts the novel - where Leah gets scammed by a local addict - is both tiny, but emblematic. For in London you are only ever that far from the street - from homelessness, helplessness, and the inner city crime that is every night on the news. Her husband, Michel, is French African and expects her to want to children; she doesn't. But we leave Leah's story to find ourselves with Felix - here's a story within a story - the section entitled (lower case) "guest".Whilst the Leah section seems too thin, in Felix's section she is writing with an eye for realism, with little trickiness. If Forster is the model for "On Beauty" it is Woolf who haunts "NW". If Leah makes quite a reasonable "Mrs. Dalloway", Felix takes the same technique - a journey through a person's day - an ordinary day, one that shouldn't really be memorable, but becomes so tragically as it progresses. We learn about Felix's life through the minutiae of his day. He is doing "this" and "that", he's a bit of a chancer, but no longer the stereotype - his life is back on track - he's even getting rid of the negative things from his past; his disastrous mother, his imprisoned brother, and the strangely disfunctional relationship he had with a fellow addict in Soho. Felix is coming clean. This section, almost a long short story has a powerful climax that has already been telegraphed in the previous section - showing how lives intertwine - and it may well be the best thing Smith has ever written. The complex structure of the book is the complexity of the fragmented city. It's not unlike Ridgeway's recent "Hawthorn and Child" in this, but without that novel's deliberate randomness. Here there's a prescription about what is shown, what is told.

Leaving Felix, we  now follow Keisha through her rise from quiet school student, to university, to Barrister - along the way, shedding not just her name and the religious boyfriend from home, but much more. She falls in love with a rich, confident but somewhat insouciant city trader, Frank; like Leah, going far outside of her own background, yet never geographically straying far from it.

This is not a long book, yet it attempts to tell full stories of the lives intertwined. The "mini chapters" that tell Keisha and Leah's friendship is a reasonably effective deconstruction, yet at some point the sections get longer, and Smith is telling a linear story, at some length. It feels a contrivance that has outlived its usefulness. For like that advert where a couple meet, marry, have children, divorce in just a few minutes, we whizz through a life that we've already encountered but in a parallel deconstruction. Keisha/Natalie, like Leah before her remains a little unknowable. If this is the story of their disappointment, the mistakes they make, then it seems a little forced - as if the action is accelerated. There's talk of "living a dream" and in terms of their material lives they surely are - yet its hard to see what it is that is actually wrong in their lives; not even sure if they've actually met the wrong men. Thinking of similar couples I know of, its their joint-purpose that sticks out, and here Frank and Michel are offstage, confused at why their wives aren't happy. The external trauma that Leah faces, is a small, but significant one, but it hardly feels life-changing; here the middle-class "dread" - of being confronted with someone in your life that you're trying to avoid seems hardly the thing to bring on a breakdown; and likewise, with Natalie we see so many changes, from religious swot, to hardworking legal poster girl, to devoted mother and wife, to a woman who begins to search the internet for sex with strangers - here the fragmentary telling means that we're not so much shocked as unbelieving. There's something odd about all this as well: for these are the "This Life" generation - socially mobile, marrying for love and for sex, rich or at least not poor, in London, the city where everything is available, and yet they seem broken by it all. Writers like Margaret Drabble in "The Millstone" or Doris Lessing in "The Golden Notebook" told of woman's lives that were constrained by their circumstance, and what they had to do to break out (or to breakdown), but Leah and Natalie seem odd victims.

As the novel goes beyond its central scenes - the catastrophic event that effects all the characters in some way, but where Felix is the victim - the fragments don't add up so much as reduce. We are back on the Caldwell. There has been an incident. Nathan, the boy everyone loved, is now a homeless crack addict, Natalie/Keisha has come here to find what? An answer? An escape?  For though these lives are well-defined and their stories are somewhat compelling, there doesn't, in the end, seem quite enough to hold up the complex structure, and the long individual sections. In many ways, the problem is that which we saw in "The Autograph Man", that Smith's scene-setting is relatively small scale, even though her storytelling is large and vivid. There are few things more damning in English fiction than the phrase "provincial novel", but I'm thinking that if this wasn't set in London then that's what it would be referred to. Yet a non-London provincial novel would not be so obsessive about its postcode (from the title, to many, many references throughout), to its street names and districts. Like "Capital" this is a novel about the capital that stays very much within some narrow bounds - its much better than Lanchester's book, in that her real strength, in describing family and relationships is at the fore throughout. As a debut novel this would seem a powerful piece; as a fourth book it is not without its many pleasures - particularly in Felix's story - but it also feels like that the literary trickery, though often impressive, is more to cover up the novel's essentially slight concerns. Far more true to the contemporary experience than her previous satires, one is never bored by Smith's tightly controlled cast and locale, but one is never entirely convinced either. There are the makings of a very good novel here, but it does fall a little short, as the potential vast chaos of the city is reduced to small things: secrets shared, crimes observed, and friendships - always fragile - surviving, but at a cost.

Read an alternative review of "NW" from Valerie O'Riordan on the Bookmuunch website. 

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