London lives

This post was republished into my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive.

N-Wby 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 Luck, Asylum 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 – it’s not perfect, but I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. (8/10)

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Source: review copy. Zadie Smith, N-W (Hamish Hamilton, 2012) Penguin paperback, 352 pages.

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