Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, as well as two collections of essays, Changing My Mind and Feel Free. Zadie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The iridescent computer screen glows white. In the bathroom the faucet spews forth, the bath her child will be coaxed into entering.
I don't get I don't get this book
--Oi! Don't even try to parody this style! You can't possibly get her dialects right -- her ear for culture -- her class symbolism -- --Her point...
The reviewer believes in books that are about something. Books that have a main character, a beginning, a middle, an end. A story.
"This book has strange chapter headings," she tells her imaginary goodreads audience, who mostly nod in sympathy. One troll says, "Man, you're just too much of a shallow cretin to get this. It's experimental, idiot."
She's still confused. She's still confused.
The child is undressed. The child gets dressed to join her siblings in the car.
Other things: An encounter which is clearly meant to be symbolic but leaves this reviewer scratching her head Many characters of varying relevance (who is this story about?) Strange chapter headings -- addresses? Locations? Confusing behavior by the characters
Like seriously? This was such a load of dreck. I can't even sit here and form coherent thoughts because I'm still so bewildered at the mess I just read. I guess all I can do is take a page out of the book and write the review by section and sub-heading because I'm really struggling to string words together that can represent my utter confusion and disgust. Here goes nothing...
Visitation Part Un: (I can't believe) This was the best section of the book and I really didn't want it to be because it wasn't even that great. I was hoping the book would improve from here on out. I was so wrong.
Guest: A close second to Visitation Part Un because this centered on another character in the book but then it sort of left me hanging because I wanted to know more about that character but we never read of him again (for obvious reasons).
Host: This was supposed to be a deep exploration of one of the characters and even though I got the gist, it was the worst section with its weird numbered sub-headings and oh were there many. Almost 200 of them. I kid you not. Why don't you crack it open and see? Actually, no, don't bother. Don't waste precious moments of your life doing that.
Crossing: Another meandering mess of a section which was closely tied to Host and seeing as my impression of that section isn't very high, let's just leave this here shall we?
Visitation Part Deux: Ah, finally the wrap up, which wasn't really a wrap up but I guess it would do since I was so ready for the book to be over.
The dialogue: The majority of it sucked partly because she used different styles. Some of it was conventional dialogue, some were like streams of consciousness and some had no quotation marks. I found myself going "huh?" one too many times.
The writing style: I really don't understand what Zadie Smith set out to do in this novel but it clearly didn't work for me. I don't know if she was trying to be all meta and post-modernist or whatever but she should have just stuck to telling the story. I'm disappointed but more importantly, I'm just confused as hell. This could have been a great story especially since she was writing about a wonderful place (the northwest of London) as a backdrop. I've been a regular England/London goer since I was an infant and still visit family and friends regularly. I also went to school an hour away from London for a few years so I'm familiar with a good portion of the city. I totally understood and appreciated all the references to the Jubilee line (the Underground), 98 bus, Kilburn, Willesden, Hampstead, Oyster card etc but then she had to go and ruin it by throwing away the opportunity to tell a really good story. Blech.
for one thing, she has a real flair for location. i don't recall having been to northwest london (directions are hard) but i feel like i can see it, through the eyes of her characters.
she captures the cadence and speech-patterns of a broad swathe of london's immigrant denizens; irish, caribbean, caribbean-italian, algerian, maybe-indian, russian, tempered by the toughness of the council estates, smoothed out by education and desire, full of slang and peculiarities (and how cute is british slang, that so many of their words are exact opposites of ours; "estate", "fanny" - it is like they are trying to be contrary) in a way that really brings her story to life and helps immerse the reader into her world.
this book is about so many things: love, race, the pursuit of and the definition of happiness,technology,perception; how people see us and how we wish to be seen, the embarrassments of youth, and the falling short of ideals and expectations.
viewed as a whole, it is maybe a little confounding - the portions are told in a variety of styles, down to the way that dialogue is broken up in the text. but i liked that - i didn't find it distracting, and i always appreciate it when there is diversity in a book. it keeps the stories separate and fresh. natalie's was my favorite part, told in little bite-sized chunks bouncing around in time, and revealing information about the other characters involved, but i definitely felt for all of the characters in this book, and i enjoyed getting into their heads.
the unifying thread tying the different narratives together is not as strong as i had hoped; usually in multi-perspective novels, i like when there is a BOOM where all the hints and bits coalesce and come together into an explosion of "ahhhhhh!", but this was a more subtle connection. it was okay, but there wasn't as intellectually satisfying a "linking moment" as some others i have read.
this book is very deceptive - it is a really fast read, but there are so many seemingly casual conversations and details that are doing so much work - important revelations are disguised as casual exchanges, and i love that, oh do i love that.
issa good book. you can have it soon.
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Another Zadie Smith betters the rest of the writing world book! We follow the adult lives of four people who grew up on a Council estate ('projects') in North West London, where the postcodes all begin with an NW. Smith uses multiple storytelling styles including stream of consciousness; she also uses definitive styles for each character's pages, for example one of the stories is told in 185 numbered vignettes! Essentially this is an experimental novel that gets it right! I should mention that this story that feels like 'a few years in the lives of...' and starts with an undefined dark event and finishes with another tragic event, but not necessarily at the end; this is on top of all the immense experimenting with form and language; this is truly a good-read!
Such a great story; on the face of it, this is a story of two lifelong friends, one Black and one White, yet the book isn't really about race at all, it's about the societal social pressures placed on women, about woman having to navigate around gender defined roles, shares the restructuring of the (British) class system and most of all it is an ode to the outcomes of economic growth, modernisation, diversity, and education, and how they impact on how we see ourselves and others see us. And don't let that list make you think this is a heavily literary read, this is very much a 21st century jam, and I loved it.. more please!
The wonderfulness of Zadie Smith is knowing that her work will live on forever and she will become another voice of the UK, voice of Britain, and a very important one at that. She writes about the urban and modern condition so well, whilst adhering to all the rules and requirements of the literary hordes. She is an inspiration, as is this book. 9.5 out of 12, Four Star Read; I couldn't honestly Five Star it, as I was more than happy to put this down for a couple of weeks and not rush back to finishing it.
Zadie Smith captures the essence of the multi-racial metropolis within these pages. By using a variety of narrative techniques, she demonstrates the randomness of city life and the overlapping nature of everyday experience, and she also shows how varied the voices are within the said city. It’s a contortion of meaning, life and stories.
When I began reading this all I could thing about was James Joyce. The first section of the book has borrowed many elements from Ulysses and like Dubliners an entire city has been novelised. I wasn’t too sure what to make of this. There’s nothing wrong with reusing elements of storytelling from other writers, pastiche is fine, but this felt too gimmicky: it felt too similar to Joyce. Though as the book progressed, Smith shed these shackles and began to experiment with different writing styles: her voice came through.
I think she used Joyce’s style purposely to demonstrate how much of this contemporary piece is in the vein of the modernist discourse; she, like Joyce, is attempting to recreate the essence of real life on the page. And real life isn’t organised or structured. The novel as an artifice is limiting at evoking this; thus, writers like Zadie Smith play around with language and technique. They attempt to capture something that by its very nature cannot be categorised. She does it wonderfully, weaving a novel together out of seemingly interrelated episodes that only come together, ever so briefly, at the end.
Some sections were more readable than others. The first section uses the dashes of Ulysses to indicate speech and uses several brief encounters to tell the story. The second section follows a straight narrative with normal speech marks. The third is told in a huge list of points, each a paragraph or two long following various sections of Natalie’s life. And the fourth and final section felt like normal story telling. I’ve been reading a fair few professional reviews for this (those for actual publications) and many of the reviewers seem to have overlooked and/or misunderstood parts of this novel. One even suggested that the second section was the only one that was readable/ enjoyable. But this isn’t a story that follows an organised route because life, especially city life, doesn’t do that.
“Not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire. And when it’s time for me to go I fully intend to roll off my one-person dinghy into the flames and be consumed. I'm not afraid.”
When I think about NW I think about a novel (can I call it a novel?) that defies expectations and conventions. It is a piece of writing that brings together themes of monotony and ordinariness. With its use of colloquialisms and slang dialogue, NW collects a whole host of voices that share their experiences with sex, coming of age, the using of drugs, trying to get pregnant and existence amongst the suburbs. From the professionals to the average workers, Smith captures the heart of the modern city.
That being said though, it is a difficult novel to pick up and an even harder one to put down. When I was reading I was enthralled by the language and essence of the book, but when I went to pick the book up a later date I struggled to do so. I’d lost the thread of the plot because there wasn’t really a solid one. And I think this would put off many readers, for me NW is one to read quite quickly and in as few sittings as possible.
5 "Zadieliciouz gotz the geniuz and the brillianz" ztarz !!
2015 BRONZE AWARD (3rd favorite read)
This novel was so fresh, so real and so engaging on so many levels. The story is about North West London and the lives of four individuals that intersect in various ways. Zadie almost broke my partner and I up as I would constantly read him passages from the novel and sigh "What a creative and empathic mind could create such a novel." He would faux exclaim, "Bloody hell Jaidee I'm going to read the book soon so stop it!!!!" or "If you love her so much- get a room!"
I went out and bought three copies of this book to give to friends who have yet to experience the wonder of Zadie. Mind you I left certain excerpts of the novel on their voicemails.
Zadie has an uncanny ability to channel the souls and essence of character and through thoughts, snippets, fragments, poetry, atmosphere, dialogue and situation paint wonderfully vivid living portraits of individuals knowing each and every motivation and nuance of feeling. I often felt that I was interacting with these characters and knew them intimately in a three dimensional way. This was strange to me as I had absolutely little in common with any of them but I grew to care about them so much.
Zadie has the wonderful magic to translate the profane into the sacred and vice versa like a high priestess of an ancient cult.
Zadie is much more than a novelist here. She is a
-developmental psychologist -urban anthropologist -wordsmith extraordinaire -local historian -cultural interpreter -spiritual advisor and -profound poet
The very first two sentences of the book ( under the section called "Visitation"), scared me. "The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on School gates and lampposts." ..... The third sentence I was ready to surrender. "In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets European, there is a mania for eating outside". My reading experience continued uphill. I stopped worrying if I would 'get' everything.
Leah's doorbell rings. A girl woman named Shar, is screaming and crying and begging for help. This entire section - I was so fully present as to how this scene would play out. I wasn't yet thinking of either of their background stories ....but slowly those stories give us the bigger picture - and power from which this book was written.
Although this book is 400 pages long - it reads fast due to the style of writing. At times the story is told through fragments of dialogue. The book is divided into four main sections [Visitation, Guest, Host, and Crossing]... Within each of these sections we are taken inside the mind of the main and supporting characters. We've lots of diversity in the streets of London. The speech sounds vary....the dialect and language feel authentic. In this local London neighborhood people are a wide mix of twenty and thirty year old's -- young adults coming of age..... immigrants from all over the world. There are the junkies, druggies, poverty, bullying, yuppies, racism, sexism, class differences, marriages, children, friendship, familiar faces, goals and intentions to better oneself, and love.
Powerful - disturbing at times - but a novel to rejoice over!!!
Stunningly original, NW is a kaleidoscope of city life and particularly the lives of four people–stark, beautiful, chaotic, brutal, electric and intense. Very few reviewers have written a construct of the story and neither will I. I will say that when I finished reading NW, I was surprised to find myself still in my own living room and not in north-west London: such is Smith's talent for capturing the reader's imagination. Some thoughts and/or quotes by the characters are:
“Meanwhile parents have become old and ill at the very moment their children want to have their own babies. Many of the parents are immigrants –from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China- and they can't understand why they have not been invited to live with their children, as is the custom, in their countries. Technology is offered as a substitute for that impossible request. Stair lifts. Pace-makers. Hip replacements. Dialysis machines. They have worked hard so we children might live like this. They “literally' will not be happy until they've moved into our houses.”
“She lost God so smoothly and painlessly she had to wonder what she'd ever meant by the word.”
“Life’s not a video game, Felix- there aren’t a certain number of points that send you to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is that everybody dies at the end. Game Over.”
“Desire is never final, desire is imprecise and impractical [...] “
“Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.”
“Maybe it doesn't matter that life never blossomed into something larger than itself.”
I'd venture to say there would be no middle of the road feeling about NW, you'd either love it or hate it: I love it.
It is stark, beautiful, chaotic, brutal, electric and intense.
It is on my best of the best bookshelf. Highly recommended. 5★
This is the novel I hoped Zadie would write. Since On Beauty in 2006, she’s been brushing up on the post-Eggers American hipster canon, hanging with the Brooklyn crowd, writing dissertations on DFW. This structurally inventive, stylistically diverse and playful novel should have set my eyes aflame with love for the precocious stripling who wrote those three unwieldy social satires in her early-to-late twenties. But it didn’t. Divided into a series of cryptic sections with titles like ‘visitation’ and ‘crossing’ and ‘host’ that stink of French theory, and making use of rangy chapter-chopping devices (short numerical chapters improperly ordered, chapters arranged by locational specificity) with varying typographical quirks (en dashes for dialogue, then no en dashes, long v. short paragraphs, mixing up the narration with reported thought and dialogue) . . . I SHOULD F**KING LOVE THIS. But I didn’t. So what happened? Would it be reductive of me to say, and pardon this sense-lapse, I didn’t “like” the story? Or, and hang on to your hats, I didn’t “like” the characters? I respect the carefully observed micro-analysis of the four lives depicted here, but the style seemed to work contra to deepening our empathy for these inexcusably ordinary Londoners and their scrambled lives, and the passing-of-time-leaves-empty-lives-waiting-to-be-filled vibe that was working to provide the novel with a through-line of profundity seemed a little pedestrian. I should add an extra star for Zadie’s successful navigation around a wholly new fictional terrain and reupholstering (uphipstering?) her style, it’s livelier and fresher than it ever was. And I should have loved it. But I didn’t.
Maybe I'm missing something here, but quotes like 'social comedy' and 'intensely funny' that appeared on the back cover of the book I thought were off the mark. Only three or four times can I think of scenes - which reminded me a little of Martin Amis' London Fields - that were genuinely funny. For me, this is much of a social drama than is it a comedy. After all, someone does get knifed to death near a bus stop. Nothing funny in that. Unless it's played out in a satirical or gallows humour kind of way; which it wasn't. Or maybe on the whole it is a funny novel, but I just chose not to see it. Anyway, there was so much I loved about NW, my first of what will certainly be other Zadie Smith novels.
A dazzling multicultural observation of north London told with a coalescence of stylistic postmodern methods, and gritty realism that had me thinking for a minute that I was reading the novel in an impoverished inner city area with a drug dealing neighbour on one side, and a Somalian family of five on the other. There was a great variety of wholly believable characters that wrestled with my emotions throughout - even the minor ones. Clearly this a writer who knows the ins and outs of London life better than the back of her own hands. It's been a while since I felt a city's residents come alive as much as they did here, and all the while I got the sense that Smith was writing NW with political impulses running through her mind.
Smith focuses strongly on the characters of Felix, Leah, and Keisha (name changed to Natalie), and to a lesser extent, Nathan, who all had the hardship of growing up in a grim housing projects area made up of five tower blocks. The narratives shift back and forth between each of them, and also intertwine and go back in time, of which the friendship between Leah and Natalie - going through the years as girls, young women, uni, and work, was one of the most touching and intensely observed parts of the novel. Smith isn't afraid to cut corners too, so we get everything from smoking first cigarettes as tweens, to sex toys and female masturbation in mid-teens. Natalie goes on to become a lawyer and mother, whilst the naive, down on her luck Leah; of Irish descent, who has different cultures clashing around her - a half Algerian, half Guadeloupean husband, the Caribbean Natalie, as well as crossing paths with rich Italians and Trinidadians - finds it hard to understand a binary view of the British class system. Time seems to be Leah's biggest conundrum, as while those around her move forward, she is stuck grasping and pulling back the hands of the clock. When it's raised about starting a family by her husband she is not keen and just wants to stay caught in the net of youth. Felix, a recovering addict trying to get his life back on track, who we follow through just a single day - visiting his disreputable father, going to see about refurbishing an old car, a trip to a pub, and then to drop in on an old flame - was for me the most likeable of the characters and the one who I felt for the most. Smith writes of him in a way that makes it impossible not to get behind Him. There was something so sincere and nice about the way he carried himself, without actually doing anything special or out of the ordinary. Of course, fate has a way of throwing up occurrences where you only have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, regardless of nice, and your whole world can be taken away in an instant.
Keisha, who comes from a churchgoing family and who, because of becoming a barrister, changes her name to Natalie, is Leah’s best friend, although, this friendship has always been challenged and discouraged. She studies law, has drab sex with a boyfriend, before meeting that special someone who would become her husband. But, after working her way up the ladder, her legal profession becomes too much of a strain, and this is echoed by her fragmented narrative. Working with those who are unwelcoming, and struggling with the children she thought would bring happiness, her life is becoming less full-bodied and more hollowed out. Her marriage is falling apart when she starts meeting people online, and winds up drifting the streets with an old classmate, Nathan, It's around this point that all the major character's stories fall into one.
I can only really think of one moment when Smith shocked and surprised me, but, despite this, it's still a racial melting pot of a novel that plays an anxious game, where you never know how things are going to pan together or what is around the corner. It might have started to fall away a bit towards the end, but that's not going to stop me going with 4.5 stars rounded up to 5. I'm torn between reading White Teeth and the essay collection Intimations next. Whichever, I very much look forward to it.
Could Smith possibly be a future contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature I wonder? I mean, Jesus, if Elfriede Jelinek can win the darn thing!
He disfrutado mucho la novela, he disfrutado la variedad de registros, he disfrutado sus escenas, sus diálogos, sus sagaces comentarios (del tipo “El camino que conducía de uno a otro era tan inevitable que los animaba a dar mil rodeos”). He disfrutado esas pequeñas historias que acompañan al hilo principal, la acertadísima caracterización de los personajes, principales, secundarios o de los que simplemente pasaban por allí,… y, sin embargo, creo que la novela cojea por varias patas. Me ha dado la impresión de que NW empezó siendo una cosa y acabó siendo otra y que ello no fue en beneficio de la novela.
Por empezar por lo más llamativo, el libro, que consta de tres partes, tiene una segunda que en sí misma constituye un gran relato, pero que mantiene una relación argumental muy difusa con las otras dos y acaba siendo un pegote.
El resto de la novela tiene dos grandes protagonistas femeninas.
Leah proviene de una familia de blancos de clase media con un gran futuro por delante. En su juventud, sus preocupaciones se reducían a como divertirse más y mejor mientras exploraba cosas y gentes, y hasta le sobraba tiempo para involucrarse en reivindicaciones sociales muy de su época. Sin embargo, en la actualidad es una persona sin rumbo, con un gran sentimiento de culpa por aquellos que se quedaron en el camino, sin que toda esa transición quede bien explicada en la novela. En mi opinión, siendo lo más interesante del libro, el personaje se queda sin terminar, dando la impresión de haber sido abandonado en mitad de su desarrollo como el juguete de un niño caprichoso en favor de otro con un colorido más vistoso: Keisha (anteriormente conocida por el nombre de Natalie).
Keisha, nombre de connotaciones más “blancas” que el verdadero, se había centrado desde muy joven en su porvenir, siendo la primera de su familia en acceder a la universidad. Se siente inferior y se comporta como si tuviera que pedir perdón por haber logrado su actual estatus, como si ello le impidiera ahora cualquier posibilidad de crítica a ese mundo que le permitió la entrada.
Zadie nos habla de los hijos y nietos de aquellos que sufrieron a la inolvidable Margaret Thatcher, la que no solo acabó con el estado de bienestar británico sino que seguramente dio el tiro de gracia a la lucha colectiva y dio paso al sálvese quien pueda... sin que muchos se estén dando cuenta de que la mayoría de las veces siempre se suelen salvar los mismos y de la misma forma. Keisha no es de las que se siente salvada, ella termina en esa tierra de nadie en la que el desapego hacia un mundo, el suyo, aquel del que proviene, la descoloca sin que el nuevo acabe por satisfacer sus aspiraciones.
Y es que Keisha tarda en comprender su error al pensar “que la vida era un problema que se podía resolver por medio de la profesionalización”, esto es, que la felicidad es un estado proveniente del exterior a uno mismo. Nada más lejos de la verdad, la vida, la buena vida, no se consigue a base de superar niveles como en un videojuego, ni de malgastar el tiempo con tontas disculpas autocomplacientes. El mundo es caótico, azaroso y la vida es suerte, naturalmente, dependemos en buena parte de esa rueda de la fortuna que decide nuestro lugar de nacimiento, la clase social, el color de la piel, los genes… pero también es lucha y a veces simplemente hay que pararse y mirar a nuestro alrededor para comprobar lo cerca que estamos de conseguirlo... y estar cerca es quizás mejor que haber llegado.
En fin, si te gustan las novelas sobre esa clase media desgraciada y degradada; si te gusta profundizar en las razones o quizás sensaciones que nos van separando sin apenas darnos cuenta de nuestros padres, de nuestros amigos, de lo que fuimos o queríamos ser; si quieres asistir a como la vida, en lugar de fortalecernos, nos hace cada vez más vulnerables; si te interesan temas como la maternidad, la amistad, el compromiso social; y si, por último, tienes en cuenta que Zadie Smith escribe de lo que conoce y además sabe cómo describirlo y desarrollarlo, entonces y solo entonces te puede llegar a interesar esta novela que pudo ser magnífica.
I've discussed this before but I truly feel sorry for Zadie Smith. She didn't ask to be the most hyped name in contemporary British fiction. Yes, we all loved White Teeth, but that novel is coming up on its twentieth anniversary in a couple years and Smith has still yet to match it.
NW is typical Smith fodder. A load of Londoners all grow up together, their lives take separate paths and we follow them as they sit around and talk about how things can never be like they were. Actually, now that I think of it, that describes all of her novels.
One of the criticisms oft thrown at this novel is Smith's decision to go Vonnegut and present the book as a series of disjointed fragments. It doesn't work. I sound very formalist when I say this but a book should flow. Even in Vonnegut's most fragmented work, Cat's Cradle, which is a novel essentially told through paragraphs, he manages to make the whole thing flow as a steady narrative. Smith's attempt is just jarring and acts as a guard against the reader ever getting invested. It is like she was trying to keep us out of her novel.
Things rarely ever happen in Smith's novels. That is not a criticism. I love a good book in which nothing happens. Beckett managed to make nothing happen twice in Godot. But in NW literally nothing happens. Most of the pages are populated by people just conversing. It's quite a dialogue-heavy novel and not much room is made for plot. Some of the few instances of plot which do occur are actually fine. I have no complaints there. Felix' chapter is the most plot-heavy and that is why it is the best part of the book. That whole section in itself could have been a fine short story.
If there is one thing that Smith is actually good at it is portraying female friendship. Call me an utterly sappy bag of feathers but I found Leah and Natalie's friendship to be the backbone of the novel. I feel Smith herself also saw this in her novel and that is the reason why her next novel, Swing Time, was entirely based around two girls and their friendship (that's also the reason why Swing Time is a much better novel than NW). I found the very final pages to be really fantastic and I wish the whole novel could have lived up to them.
I feel my relationship with Zadie Smith is the same relationship many men have with their favourite football teams. The follow them through thick and thin, even if they lose every game. There's always a sense that some day, maybe next season, they'll finish on top. We all live in hope. Over the years Smith has fallen deeper and deeper down the league table but I am not giving up on her. I know she has something great in her. I'm still placing my bets.
The cover-flap copy makes this seem like a playfully pomo tragicomic treatise on contemporary city life but it seemed more like a simultaneously straightforward and purposefully skewed narrative exploration of superaccessible topics like long-term friendship, fluid identity (possibility of), order/chaos (extremes to which we might alternately lean when there's lack or excess of either), ye olde search for meaning in a world that rarely stays ordered forever.
All these themes are reflected in the structure: the stories of two long-time female friends (Leah and Keisha/Natalie) interrupted by the tangentially related story of a familiar neighborhood face (Felix), streaked with the story of someone tangential from the girls' past (Nathan Bogle) who affects Felix's present. These stories are for the most part presented in chapters/sections ordered with traditionally ascending numbers, except that (in Leah's section) when presented with a sufficient stressor, the chapter numbers jump from 14 to 37, a number of irrational/mystical significance involving numerological quasi-faith/sense of order in an otherwise disordered world (see p 37, UK edition).
Keisha/Natalie's section of the book is the most traditional, an episodic series of 185 numbered short bits (missing #37, of course) relating fleeting coming-of-age memories/nostalgia (great bit about first listening to a Walkman, suggestions of TV shows from Friends to The Wire), sexual experience with objects and others, first loves, education, ascendancy by virtue of working twice as hard as whites not from the council estates. This section, despite the appearance of numbers, reads traditionally/linearly, often with scenes and dialogue, but it's an unfulfilling order for Keisha (renamed Natalie to reflect her new professional identity), who longs for disorder (p 267, UK): "There is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos. Despite many disguises and bluffs perhaps she had never stopped wanting chaos."
A thematic key for readers confused by this novel appears early on (Page 10, UK): "Leah spins her spoon in her tea . . . She pressed the bag too hard. The leaves break their borders and swarm." Such swarms (chaos) abound after the borders of various tea bags (ideas of order) are broken. Clearly, Leah's metaphorical tea bag is broken when Shar enters her apartment in the first scene, but she can deal with it until, in chapter 14, again, she breaks down after calling Shar a thief and receiving a volley of patois in return on p 36, a scene followed by chapter 37. Keisha at first longs to escape the order of the family unit and then later as Natalie with her own family plus nanny etc she again longs to leave it -- she wants to tear open her tea bag and let the leaves swarm. Other ideas of order are expressed as The Law (see Kafka's "The Trial"; also, "At RSN Associates the law burst from broken box files . . ." p 215 UK), ye olde Anglo-Saxon London, bellies kicked and sliced or swollen with baby, the encapsulated past (Garvey House photo book) and the uncollected present, and again -- on an all-important formal level -- conventional versus unconventional structure.
Other dualistic dealios exist, especially one related to boredom opposed to ecstasy/catharis/the fullness of time (google link to Kierkegaard quote presented on p 223), the difference between a moment and an instant that Natalie thinks of as "blossom." And this sort of thing relates to the difference between a page of Mapquest-style directions from point A to B (p 33) and a page of sensations and specifics along the route (p 34).
Some folks mention that they don't quite like the characters, and I think this has to do with structure and characterization. Early on I had trouble with characterization -- at first it felt detrimentally underdone, but by the end I realized that this was consequence of the structure (for example, Natalie and her kids are presented early on but we don't know much about them -- they're more or less disembodied proper nouns at first) but major players come to life once things focus on Keisha/Natalie Blake, the latest in the line of slant semi-autobiographical characters (see Irie in "White Teeth" and Zora in "On Beauty"). Minor players (Jayden, Nathan Bogle, Marcia, Tom, Annie) maybe remain a little underdrawn, and therefore seem like thematic representatives more than characters (Jayden reps open-living freedom; Nathan Bogle reps the encapsulated past torn open)? Natalie's husband Frank is somehow almost a sort of superhandsome successful Trinidadian Italian hybrid stereotype (if such a man can possibly be a stereotype), but he's the only one who's characterized with real vibrant zeal, like the author was concerned that James Wood might protest (oh lord, there she goes again with that Hysterical Realism!) if she didn't tone shit down a bit in this one? In general, names at first seem unremarkable (Tom, Frank, Leah, Natalie, Michel, Ned) but fill out with compelling prosaics in time, almost as a lesson to the reader in the importance of considering the complexity of consciousness and experience inherent in commonplace names and faces.
I realize I haven't gone into the section with Felix and Annie so much. Felix tries to set things in order and do what's right -- and he gets swarmed for it. Maybe I'll revisit this part a little later on.
In general, I feel like I need to re-read the first two sections to really see how the parts relate, but that's also the point of this book, to create initial readerly disorientation/sense of disorder that solidifies/focuses/blossoms as the characters' lives become more disordered (ie, as their tea leaves swarm)? That tension, that movement -- readers acheiving order as characters lose it -- is maybe one of the book's pleasures? Again, it's the sort of book that probably requires a second read, a book whose first read for me I felt merited a second read because I'm sure it's chockful of rewarding links between parts and people, associative goodies throughout I couldn't easily make on first read, that importantly relate to overarching themes of order and disorder/connection and disconnection. It might call for a second read but not the way Joyce or Faulkner usually do -- it's comparatively easy reading on a line to line level throughout. Overall, an engagingly slant story -- in terms of thematic and narrative procession, it's necessarily more angular (NW) than straightup (N-S-E-W).
Some stray sentences of significance:
"Captive animals, contemplating a return to nature. Natalie is calm, having already traveled to the other side." (p 77) This line makes sense when you reach the end!
"Some days have a depressing thematic coherence" (p 115) The sort of line that you think might be self-referential when you're not sure if the book's hanging together thematically at that point.
"There is an image system at work in the world. We wait for an experience large or brutal enough to disturb it or break it down completely, but this moment never quite arrives. Maybe it comes at the very end, when everything breaks down and no more images are possible. In Africa, presumably, the images that give shape and meaning to a life, and into whose dimensions a person pours themselves . . . are drawn from the natural world and the collective imagination of the people . . . In that circumstance there would probably be something beautiful in the alignment between the one and the many. . . Pregnancy brought only more broken images from the great mass of cultural detritus she took in every day on a number of different devices, some hand-held, some not. To behave in accordance with these devices bored her." (p 237) No annotation necessary -- relates to the fullness of time, being in synch with society, being one with being etc, "each in its ordered place" per Faulkner.
"Here nothing less than a break -- a sudden and total rupture -- would do." (p 282)
I loved Zadie’s first book, White Teeth, which she wrote when she was only 23 years old. I may be wrong but I feel that with this book Smith was trying to distance herself from her 23 year old self.
This book introduces us to several residents of the northwest of London. There’s Leah who isn’t content with her life despite her loving husband who desperately wants to start a family with her. There’s Felix, a recovering addict who decides he’s off the drugs for good and ready to embark on an adult relationship. And there's Natalie, nee Keisha, who is a married lawyer with two kids, trying to distance herself from her Caribbean heritage.The characters in this book,there are many, are flawed and unhappy. There are some tragic scenes, some interesting ones, some thought-provoking.
What I liked about the book is how Smith portrays the new England, the new London in particular. This is a London which is very culturally diverse, where Churches, mosques, synagogues are in close proximity; where you can easily find African markets and so on. There is no longer a homogeneous image of what it means to be English/a Londoner.
Smith incorporates the linguistics of London into her book. I think it may be hard for people who aren’t familiar with British slang to understand parts of the dialogue, I don’t know. It made me curious about whether the book would do slightly better in the UK than it would do in North America and elsewhere.
I’m not sure if the fragmentary structure of this book really worked in Smith's favour, although I found myself warming up to it as the book went on. Still, I think the stream of consciousness style that was present in much of the book was a bit much.
It’s a grim book; drugs, alcohol, poverty, council housing. Everything seems so stagnant.
There’s a fabulous observation early on when Smith identifies swearing as a means often of improving the rhythm of a sentence. I’d never thought of this before but it’s so true. Cussing as a tribute to Shakespeare!
In fact Smith is consistently brilliant at contemporary social observation, at drawing attention to new and revealing speech patterns and behavioural quirks. For example here’s a piece of social choreography that didn’t exist in, say, EM Forster’s time: “To get a laugh Felix high-fived Hifan, kissed Kelly on the cheek, stole a chip and walked on, like it was all one movement, a form of dance.” So often she makes you see social gestures and modes of speech you’re aware of but have never quite processed. She also comments on how television depicts poverty “as a personality trait.”
In essence, NW follows the paths of two young women from the same council estate – half-Irish Leah and Caribbean Keisha (who re-invents herself as Natalie), both of whom, unbeknowingly to themselves, are stalked by two males from the same estate, less successful at reinventing themselves - Nathan, something of a cultural cliché with his regime of hustling, drugs and crime, and Felix, a reformed rogue and addict who teeters on the brink of a new beginning. All four will eventually be united by a shared experience.
Leah, Keisha, Felix and Nathan are perhaps better as vehicles of cultural descriptive prowess on Smith’s part than characters we truly care about. Without wanting to give away the plot, the undoing of Keisha’s reinvention of herself wasn’t entirely convincing psychologically and seemed more like a plot device than an inevitable signature of character. Often this novel seems more like a documentary than a novel, an insightful piece of social history. Smith does a brilliant job of capturing the nuances of street life in the decade she describes. A brilliant job at creating a visual map and soundtrack of the small piece of London she’s describing. The relationships in the novel were perhaps less rich and engaging, though she did a good job of depicting the close friendship between two females with observations like this:
“She was in breach of that feminine law that states that no weakness may be shown by a woman to another woman without a sacrifice of equal value being made in return.”
...NW came to an end and I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes. I could still see images from the movie, long shots: the tower blocks of a North West London suburb; two figures moving down a long dreary street; close-ups: a pair of ragged red slippers; the dirt encrusted fabric of a cheap blue tracksuit, all very vivid. How had those images fitted into the story line, I wondered? Had there been an actual story line, some unifying thread running through the whole? I was confused. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. Ah, yes, perhaps it hadn’t been a movie after all but a documentary; just a camera following a few inhabitants of north London as they went about their daily lives, travelling on the tube, sitting in their back yards, going to the supermarket or the church or the pound shop, the camera picking up odd snatches of dialogue, a few words here, a few words there, yes, a documentary about the enclosed world of NW, rarely moving beyond it, although I remembered a couple of shots of Chancery and, was it, Regent Street, the camera jumping about a bit as they do in documentaries sometimes, very realistic but a little disconcerting for the viewer. And what had been the point of this documentary? I was still confused. I opened my eyes and looked around me. The vivid red and blue dust jacket of the book which lay beside me caught my eye. NW. So, not a documentary, a book. And all the voices, all the images in my mind had come from that book. Amazing. I picked it up and turned to the first page and began reading until...
"Sneaky animals. Foxes are everywhere. If you ask me, they run things."
I don't know what's wrong with me lately. I've lost all motivation to write up these little book reviews. I'm just about bored out of my mind watching UFC fights. I'm not even really sure how I pass the time that I'm not at work, I guess reading, but none of that reading is doing much to inspire me to want to write about anything I've read.
But it's not that the books I've been reading are boring me or anything. I'm enjoying most of them quite a bit, and as most of them are still from the BEA and ALA ARC's (why don't I see if I can figure a way to throw a few more three letter abbreviations into this sentence), I'm fairly optimistic for this fall's new releases even if I'm not at all optimistic about the company I work for not figuratively fucking itself up the ass with a twelve gauge shotgun and then pulling the trigger thinking that it's probably a good idea (that strained imagery brought this song to mind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTkHl9..., which probably has no place in this review, but when is it not appropriate to share some questionably racist and homophobic early 90's gangsta rap?).
I haven't read Zadie Smith's last novel, On Beauty, I really mean to, but I feel like I should (re?)read Howards End first, and every time I decide, ok, now I'm going to read On Beauty I'm just not in the mood to try to find my copy of Howards End to read for maybe the first time or maybe the second (how pathetic that I can't remember if I read this book or not, I think I have but I don't remember a thing about it. If you read a book and about eight years later you can't remember a thing about it did you ever actually read it? Is that time just lost, what good is reading if you're swiss cheese mind can't hold anything in it?). I'm only mentioning this because that is supposed to be an amazing novel, and I feel like I should know how I feel about it to compare NW to it and see if she has developed as a writer, or if this is a step backwards for her? I want to be able to answer that question.
From the Zadie Smith books I have read, this is much much much better than her disappointing sophomore Mr. Autograph, and about on level with her quite good debut novel White Teeth. Thematically it's in the same ballpark as White Teeth, sweeping-ish portraits of Londoners with quite a few issues of race and class being looked at. What I'm not sure though is if she has taken a step back from On Beauty and retreated to possibly safer ground in this book.
While reading the book I found out that she is going to be reading at my store sometime in September. This will give me a third opportunity to be in her general vicinity and feel really awkward and want to say something like, I really like your books and instead say nothing because I'll feel super intimidated because she's really smart and really pretty and because I have the social skills of a socially retarded rock, so instead of meeting her (which could be easily arranged, I could just ask an events coordinator if I could be introduced, it's really simple to do), I'll instead ask the same parenthetical events coordinator if she can get a signed copy of this book for me, and maybe it will even be personalized to me, but it will probably be a third occasion I could theoretically talked to her and didn't (the first two? An event for Autograph Man at the store years ago, and last month at BEA she was just hanging out around the Penguin booth for awhile).
The book takes place in Northwest London, which I think is a part of London that is predominantly lower-class. I know nothing about the neighborhoods of London though, and if I had any sense of the geography of London I think I would have gotten a bit more from the book. Neighborhoods are mentioned that I know from songs of bands like Pulp, but I really have no idea what those places are supposed to be like. From Pulp lyrics I would guess sort of hip, but from here I'd imagine sort of run down and not so nice, sort of like the uncolonized neighborhoods of Brooklyn (which will soon be hip and the whole borough will be one giant sprawl of places too cool for the likes of normal folks).
Four different characters are followed who all grew up in these neighborhoods. Each character gets his or her own section of the book, and my one gripe with the book is that there are some weird typographical choices made to differentiate the sections from one another, and I'm not exactly sure if I approve of some of the choices made in the first section, although I'm going to suspend judgement until the final copy of the book is in my hands because maybe this is just an awkwardness in the reader copy and not how the final product will look. If this is in fact the way the final book will be typeset then, well, some interesting choices were made that look sort of interesting, but more just add some unnecessary confusion to the text when pagination happens to fall in certain ways. I'm sort of wishing I didn't hand off the copy of this to Karen already so I could give an example, but it basically comes down to a sort of weird way dialogue is formatted and has a tendency to bleed into the non-dialogue parts of the text at times.
I also wish I had the book so I could give character names, my stupid brain has already forgotten them. Stupid. (I was thinking fuck, I'm never going to write this review, so I might as well just pass the book along already, and now here I am about six hours after handing the book off writing the review).
The book's third section is probably the strongest. It follows a bookish girl of Caribbean descent from her childhood, through her church-going nerdish adolescence to her transformation to a successful lawyer with a new less ethnic (or whiter?) name. That section is up there with some of the stronger parts of the surprisingly great Jennifer Egan novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (I totally blanked on the name of this novel while writing it, and for a moment I was convinced that the name of the novel was "In on the Kill Taker", but that is the name of a Fugazi album, and I knew that, but I was still just going to put it there and not look up what the real name was, and just see if anyone actually made it this far into this fairly uninformative review to call me out on my blatant mistake, but then I googled to remind myself (ok, to tell me) what the name of the book really was.) I would love if the whole novel had been as strong as this section, but the other three just aren't. Looking back at the novel as a whole I want to say something like, why couldn't she just develop the third section a bit more and make it the whole novel, or why can't the other sections be beefed up and made as great as that one, but I'm thinking that their relative weakness to the juggernaut third section work as a nice bit of complements to that story.
Shit, I've written quite a bit and I've said very little. I'm happy I just sat down and wrote anything though, so I'm going to post this. If you are a fan of Zadie Smith you'll probably read this no matter what I say anyway when the book comes out in a month. If you haven't read her yet I'd recommend eventually reading this, but give White Teeth a shot first, I think it might actually be a stronger novel than this one, but there are definitely things about NW that are quite good and she has side-stepped some of the more sensational elements of her debut novel.
I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too? Then there's a pair of us — don't tell! They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody! How public, like a frog To tell your name the livelong day To an admiring bog!
Zadie Smith's NW has been compared to lots of different works: Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, Telegraph Ave, even White Teeth, her debut novel. It seems to me that nothing comes closer to its essence than these few lines by Emily Dickinson. Set in NW London, also the setting for White Teeth, it is primarily about two life-long friends-the nobody's from the poem-as they try to figure out who they are, to themselves, to their families and to each other. Natalie, aka Keisha, is a barrister and mother. From a Jamaican family, she's worked hard for her many achievements but has lost something vital along the way. Leah, of Irish descent, is less focused than her friend and has achieved less. She may embody her ambivalence in a less-nuanced way, but she is no less troubled by her present life and the uncertainties about her future. Telling their stories allows Smith to ruminate about some troubling social trends in the city of London. The chasm between the haves and have-nots, the negative consequences of gentrification, immigrant alienation, substance abuse and racism are combined with some trenchant observations about zealous religiosity, sibling rivalry and mother-daughter antagonism: this bog-a neighborhood she calls NW-has it all.
Smith skewers many modern absurdities in a rambling, sometimes ungrammatical, prose style which might be off-putting to some readers, but seemed perfectly suitable to me for this tale of alienation and renewal. Although the section about Leah is divided into regular chapters, they are comprised of descriptions that blend with dialogue into a dreamy stream-of-consciousness with a hip-hop rhythm. Natalie's segment is divided into mostly short, numbered segments reminiscent of a self-help manual. It is an effective way to illustrate Natalie's rigor and self-control as Smith artfully peels away her carefully constructed facade to reveal a disturbing inner life. Two minor male characters provide a stark contrast to the comparative well-being of the women. One of them strives for renewal while the other one, a once-promising athlete, is defeated by his lack of discipline. Smith wants her characters-and her readers-to appreciate how neighborhoods can shape us in ways that can be positive, negative or both. She presents this particular neighborhood, with its complexities and contradictions, as a microcosm of the greater world and she does it with wit, style, and a clarity of vision. This may lack the manic exuberance of White Teeth, but it is no less powerful in its impact.
A slow burn. I took a while to get into it, since NW is self-consciously experimental. Fifty pages in, and I remember why I love Zadie Smith. It is not that she helps my feeble mind recall the 90s: when airfare was cheap, globalism was novel, and being in a city with as much diversity and cultural incongruity as possible was the transcosmopolitan goal ("I was hanging out with this half-Jewish Jamaican guy last night. He's from Brazil, Sikh by choice, disclaims his birthright, vegan. We were smoking and listening to Russian rap online via Radio 3 Switzerland until 4am"). That's her big theme: interesting Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Africans living together in the dirty part of London in a country formerly only of boring white people. And the local colour is always more interesting for all their hard luck.
She always hooks me with incidental details. Half-faded decals of cartoon characters in a children's hospital. Her characters' use of smartphones and how the phones complicate social interactions, i.e. people using phones when they are with their friends, signalling they are bored, lonely, distracted. The mould that grows on the ceilings of unventilated apartments of people from hot countries who crank the heat in mid-winter. Seeing the wave of your friends have children, who then email you photo attachments of exhausted mother and child, in which the mothers look more sweaty, dishevelled, and alien to you than you've ever seen before. People's rooms being an expression of their inner states of mind.
I love her for these details alone, because I've been in these rooms and situations too many times. But she also fleshes out 4 fully realized people: Irish social worker, young black mechanic, professional black lady barrister, and a homeless guy (I've definitely met the lawyer). These characters, their lovers, parents, and dependants roam through Smith's old council estate, Willesden, and around to other similar neghbourhoods, causing drama, suffering, and struggling with the actual problems and non-problems of their late 20s and 30s.
Smith is still crap at endings. Her endings are abrupt, and always leave me flipping casually back through the book to see if the build-up warranted that kind of trailing off. I finally re-read the end, the beginning, shrug, and go on with my life. For her, it's the details and characters that matter.
Umphh.. Just read the end, put the book down, and I feel fatigued!!
Definitely, this is the triumph of structure over content. And not in a good, "just on the right line" way. Content is absolutely smashed to a pulp and disintegrated, by Alexander the Great the Emperor of All Worlds: The Form. In fact, I'd venture to say that the book is a beautiful empty box. The author spent so much time working on the box and the wrapping, that she forgot she actually had a flipping novel to write! A story that is worth telling! Content, juice, meat, anyfing.... there's just none of tha' here, innit?
Sure, I do have a certain admiration for the structural acrobatics that Zadie Smith used in NW. It reminded me of some musicians who at a certain point go "balls out" and dare to try a completely different thing, with the hope that they will either be recognized as geniuses, because they actually invented something new, or at least they will inspire some change. A daring feat, experimental, almost like watching a new circus number.
But all this formal sophistication might very well distract readers, like a magic trick, from the fact that this is a very cold and very dark book. What matters to me, especially with fiction books, is that pulsating core that exists at the center of each novel. In NW, we are given dark charachters with despair in their hearts, cold people with cold personalities and thoughts. And how accurately Smith portrays the absolute faithless, godless approach to life of Londoners. All this, with no plot whatsoever. Like a graphic novel that consists only of disjointed black and white sketches of miserable people. To use some teen language: I know, right? Ugh!
No wonder many reviewers on this site were left almost doubting their own intellectual skills. I read a few "I don't know if I'm not sophisticated enough to understand this novel, but...", and "I'm not sure what I just read". You see what you did, Zadie?
Not only, as I mentioned above, there is no plot at all, but also what IS actually there, in between the ink somersaults, I found boring and unpleasant. There are many joyful and interesting people living in London (I know because I lived there), and I thought Jonathan Franzen was the undisputed master at generating the most annoying fictional charachters, but no, Zadie Smith was able to defeat him. The incomplete, envious and frustrated Leah. The cold, arrogant, cheating Natalie. Personal taste, maybe, but I wouldn't like to spend 30 seconds with any of these two.
And what happens to Shar, the girl who shows up at the beginning, promising intriguing developments? Like many other elements in this novel, she is lingering at the sides of the destroyed railway that is this story, with nothing to do, no traction to provide.
Finally, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with this bit from a review on "The Guardian":
"The whole of the first section is defined by its resistance to genre, by what it doesn't want to be. It's like an oddly shaped inner-city park, bounded not only by chick-lit and thriller but by the modernism it aspires to. The touches of dilute Joycean play are less like new ways of looking at the world than mildly adventurous ways of organising a narrative. [ ] The whole book is oddly queasy about the value of getting on in the world."
... and with the article's conclusion:
"The real mistery of NW is that it falls so far short of being a successful novel, though it contains the makings of three or four".
I am sure that there are those that will disagree with my 2 star rating. I was excited to see that Zadie Smith had written a new work of fiction. I was towards the beginning of it when Anne Enright's review was published in the Times. The review was great, the book, not so much. I disliked the characters, their dishonesty and so much more. Sometimes when reading her writing, it is like being in a dreamlike state, you are not really sure what's going on. In a book you can return to the passage, which I oftentimes found myself doing. What Zadie Smith does capture beautifully is the voice of her characters, their speech patterns, their stories. Maybe that's why I gave the book 2 stars. If I weren't so neurotic I might have left it after the first part.
Author Smith says NW is about language, and I agree. Language is central to our understanding of the characters, and language defines their lives in many ways. I had the good fortune to listen to the audio of this title, brilliantly read by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet. Having access to a paper copy at the same time, I feel confident that the spoken version is an aid to clarity and understanding, and there was true enjoyment in hearing the range of vocal virtuosity by both readers. I did end up listening to it twice.
A clear example of how language can define one is the incident of a boneheaded young man with the posh accent, Tom, selling an old MG to the young man Felix, who had made great strides towards self-realization despite the tug of his background and the brake of his language. Any observer of that scene would immediately suspect Felix of putting the fix on when objectively that would be far from the case. And Keisha, or Natalie as she began calling herself, managed to change most things about her world when she changed her language. She became a barrister and even forgot what it was like to be poor.
But this novel is also about the process of becoming. To my way of thinking, there are only two central characters in the novel, Leah and Natalie. Both resist adulthood, but the choice is not really theirs to make. They become adults despite their attempts to hold back the process, and end up making decisions that demonstrate authorial control over their own lives, stopping their ears to very loud protestations from their inner selves. Therefore they land in adulthood awkwardly, splay-legged and wrong-footed, and must find a way to right themselves again before acknowledging they are older, wiser, and already there.
Several other minor characters, e.g., Annie and Nathan, manage to avoid true adulthood altogether by burying their options beneath addictions. Felix was the one that was most consciously “becoming.” He strove daily to be a better man--for his woman, for himself, for his future family. He made himself happy doing it. He got clean, “was conscious,” and made himself and his family proud. But demons chased him down. Maybe you can’t really ever get free.
In the last third of the book, a 50-something female barrister “role model” dressed in a gold satin shirt beneath the expected blazer, and a diamante trim to de rigueur black court shoes tells Natalie: '“Turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.” She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”'
Of course I’d heard of Zadie Smith, but I’d never read her early work. She was so popular when she first came into print that I decided to wait to form my own opinion when the clamour died down. Sometimes it is so noisy out there when a new, talented author is heralded that I can’t hear myself think.
I never had the feeling while reading this novel that Smith was haphazard in her choice of images or language. The novel is constructed and in the end one looks up to see graffiti covering a wall with violent scribbles of bright color. Overlaid, a couple words traced in black paint stand out over the rest: SEX RACE CLASS
I find it odd that anyone can read this book without feeling extraordinarily pleased that someone somewhere is taking the effort to think about this fucked up world in a manner that is both dispassionate and instructive. Comparing this book with the rubbish our market obsessed, ie ill-informed reader obsessed, publishers and writers are lauding, and which I, in my current position, have to read, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the author. Which I shall express thus - thank fuck somebody gives a shit.
Four characters who all grow up on the same estate in the London borough of Willesden and who, as adults, are all ultimately linked by one event that takes place there.
Leah and Natalie are best friends with that inevitable period of falling out for a couple of years. They are of the same generation as my own daughter so at times I felt like I was given an insight into aspects of her secret life, one or two a little worrying! This friendship was movingly detailed. To begin with we read about Leah as a married adult, her equilibrium unsettled by a demanding stranger arriving at her door, a ghost from the toxic estate on which she grew up. Leah’s story will then continue through the Natalie narrative which is composed of chronologically paced snapshots. We are taken back to their childhood and teenage years. Natalie is the most socially successful of the characters, a barrister, married to a beautiful man and mother of two children. She too though will be revisited by her background. Natalie is perhaps the most puzzling character and maybe the least successful, odd because she shares more attributes with Zadie Smith herself than any of the others. The two males, Felix and Nathan get shorter thrift. Both are black and both fall prey to the most negative social stereotyping of young black men. “Everyone loves up a bredrin when he’s ten. With his lickle ball ‘ead. All cute and lively. Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten. After that he’s a problem. Can’t stay ten always.” Felix is on the road to redemption; Nathan is falling deeper into a life of crime.
Essentially this is a brilliant character study of an urban environment at a specific time in history. Almost like a documentary chronicling the cultural props and changes of a decade on London’s streets. Smith’s eye for telling detail is particularly impressive.
Ένα αστεράκι!!! Το βιβλίο είναι υπέροχο γιατί με τις περίπου 450 σελίδες του χρησιμεύει για τα εξής: 1. Κατασκευή σαϊτας (για πολλές μιλάμε) 2. Επιπλέον σκαλάκι για να φτάσουμε ψηλά ένα ράφι 3. Σωσίβιο μέσα τη θάλασσα 4. Τούβλο για χτίσιμο ακινήτου Δεν ξέρω αν μπόρεσα να γίνω αρκετά σαφής αλλά εξυπηρετεί πολλαπλές χρήσεις πλην από αυτές που πρέπει να εξυπηρετεί ένα βιβλίο. Ειλικρινά, δεν έχω λόγια για να περιγράψω όλη αυτή την μπούρδα που διάβασα. Βλέποντας σχόλια από Άγγλους βιβλιόφιλους είδα ότι είχαν αρκετά καλά σχόλια, ενώ αντιθέτως από το ελληνικό κοινό πολύ κακά. Αυτό με κάνει να αναρωτιέμαι αν όντως το βιβλίο είναι σκουπίδι ή έχει γίνει χείριστη δουλειά στη μετάφραση και την επιμέλεια. Προσωπικά το συστήνω μόνο σαν σάκο του μποξ γιατί έχει την ικανότητα να ξυπνάει μέσα μας το θυμό που τόσο όλοι θέλουμε να εκτονώσουμε, μιας και σε κάθε γραμμή αναρωτιέσαι τί σκ@@@α σε έχει πιάσει και συνεχίζεις και το διαβάζεις!
I read this book with Rowena so I'm writing with the benefit of her illuminating comments. You can read her review here.
The book is divided into sections narrated by different characters. Our first storyteller is Leah, a young white woman from North West London with Irish parents, married to a black African francophone immigrant, Michel. The initial encounter Leah has with a young woman begging for help at her door reveals her generous nature, while the fragmentary style of the writing seems designed to show us the style of her thought. We learn that Leah is resisting uncomfortable pressure on her from all sides to get pregnant. We realise that she and Michel have got married hastily, each naive about the other's life plans. While Michel has unexamined patriarchal attitudes playing out in his relationship to Leah, claiming her property, being & body as his own, she has been attracted by his beauty and kindness, and for her the relationship is based on lust.
I was struck by the way Leah's encounter with the desperate woman was reconstructed by Michel and her mother, and how this changed her behaviour. This kind of skilfully handled detail built up an impression of Leah as very passive and easily swayed, like my younger self. I found Leah and her mother Pauline very realistic as white people who have generationally graduated levels of ignorance about race. While Pauline is ridiculous and ignorant in her attitudes, Leah is embarrassed by her mother's racism, but she is no more able to see whiteness; Smith shows this very skilfully though Leah's resentful and self-pitying feelings about her relationships with her co-workers, particularly her black boss. By presenting this from Leah's viewpoint without author-voice judgement or caricature, Smith helps me to see the same attitudes in myself forgivingly but critically.
Leah narrates encounters with her black friend Natalie and her husband and children. Leah sees her as grown up and her life as meaningful - this is partly conferred by motherhood - only giving birth legitimises a woman's existence, according to the overt & implicit messages Leah constantly receives from husband, mother, friends. Natalie remains mysterious; Leah does not seem to understand anyone very well and especially lacks self awareness.
There is a wonderful middle section of the book narrated by Felix, a character whose story intersects only briefly with the core narrative around Natalie and Leah. I think Smith has written this section because it's important to her that this character be a site of empathy in the book, rather than a stereotyped stock figure. She breathes life into everyone as far as possible; I feel she takes pains to stop us from making assumptions, while at the same time drawing on familiarity to create recognition and identification. She uses dialogue to this end, very acutely observed as critics have praisingly noted, though it makes the book almost untranslatable and probably very difficult for readers unfamiliar with British English.
Natalie/Keisha is the most fully realised character and has the clearest, most direct style. Shar, the desperate young woman Leah initially encounters, remembers her from high school as 'coconut'. This excellent article helped me to understand more about this racist term, and how it is used both by white and black people to criticise black people, usually because they are successful, hard working etc, as if, ridiculously, these are 'white' traits. Keisha Blake feels out of place in her own life; she seems to lack helpful role models. She changes her name to Natalie and pursues a high-powered career.
There is a brilliantly crafted tension between perceptions of Natalie. She is stereotypically seen as concerned with social justice because she is black - she does not actually articulate such a commitment. Her blackness is exploited in court for this purpose - to whitewash. She is courted by controversial clients who only want to use her as a fig-leaf for their unethical behaviour. For this she is lectured by her mother and friends. Her sister and old friends snub her for being insincere and lacking self-awareness - their criticisms hurt because they are laced with painful truth.
I found this piece very helpful to my understanding of the relationship between Natalie and Leah. I urgently wanted both of them to wise up, but Smith remained true to them and the realism of the novel and resisted such temptations. As it is, the book's commentary on vital, highly relevant issues of racism and sexism is sophisticated and enlightening. Another dimension was introduced in the case of Natalie's husband Frank; although black, he was raised solely by his wealthy white Italian mother and suffers a strangely nuanced isolation. His story makes me think of black (and others who are not white) children who are adopted into white families.
I felt that the plot was the least successful aspect of the book; the late stages of drama were protracted and lacked the rich emotional resonance that made other parts, such as Natalie's childhood memories, so haunting and captivating.
I'm going to four-star this even though it's landing for me somewhere between a three and four, primarily because what I enjoyed does not quite make up for what I didn't enjoy or understand.
I realize this is a flimsy premise upon which to base a rating, but the end times are here and I'm not much inclined to worry about the little things, y'know?
So here's a quasi-review filled with unsupported statements that will sound more definitive than I intend, and questions that I throw out there for others to do with as they will.
'Coz end times.
What I Liked
The impressionistic writing, full of snatches of conversation and thoughts, disconnected, referential to pop culture or previous parts of the novel which one may or may not get. The brunch section was particularly kaleidoscopic, and I thought a marvel of structure and language and characterization.
The sense of place and its influence and constraints - physical, cultural, socio-political.
Related, the trajectory of the characters, each of of them, in terms of where they came from and where they are going. The sense that there are escapees and others, those who don't or can't or won't escape. And that the grass is not necessarily greener on either side (see Keisha/Natalie and her sister, as one example).
The broader theme of identity and how it's shaped (by place, race, class, culture, socio-economics, education, etc.) but also chosen but also arbitrary and also fluid. This tension - between self-identity and the struggle to define or transcend a definition imposed on one - seems central to every character, although it plays out differently for each. It especially shows up for characters vis-a-vis their parents - Natalie, Leah, Felix - and their spouses/girl-boyfriends.
Without too much more thought on this, I wonder if self exists in this novel in no way except in relation to others, and the common milieu they share?
Related to this, I thought the character of Natalie - whose central goal is self-definition (she actually changes her name, that's how much she wants to be someone else - but who?), and who seems a hollow shell of a person in so many ways, someone who lacks a self of any real substance - was fascinating and compelling, however also ...
What I Didn't Like (&/or Didn't Understand)
disappointing. Natalie's arc is confounding to me in terms of what Smith is trying to say about and with this character. Given that her section is the longest, and her character the most intimately shown and known, this is kind of a fatal flaw for me in the novel.
The last couple of chapters, stylistically and linguistically rich, are ultimately empty of meaning for me.
Similarly, I wish there had been stronger links between each section. Leah seems to exist as counter-point to Natalie, but her story - which started the novel and was engaging in and of itself - peters out, and is never revisited. Leah's husband Michel - a shadowy background figure - seems important in the beginning, but doesn't end up so. And Felix's section is sandwiched in the middle of the two central female characters, with references to him before and after, but ultimately these references didn't add up to anything coherent (although his story is so dramatic and poignant). Again - he is point and/or counterpoint to what, exactly?
As much as I loved the impressionistic writing throughout, which early on gave the writing such energy, I started to disengage from it as the novel went on. I guess Smith gives her readers a lot of respect, and trusts that they will be able to follow along with her bouncing ball - even if it skips every second or third bounce - to put the clues together into a sensible whole.
For me, though, it required too much faith. It was impossible to keep up with the unvarying, staccato rhythm with so many obscure details and dangling threads, so chunks of the novel just passed into background noise for me like the snatches of song lyrics heard on a car radio as it drives by (which happens frequently in NW). It ended up isolating me, instead of drawing me in; the experimentation - especially pronounced in the third section with its chapter snippets - changed the rhythm yet again, but also grew wearying.
By the end - the very end - the novel fizzled out entirely. I was hoping for some kind of coming together of theme, character, plot. Maybe it was there and I missed it. Maybe it wasn't there at all. Maybe whether it was there or not is beside the point. You tell me.
Zadie Smith wrote a masterpiece debut novel when she was under 30, a story that takes place in a Northwest London borough, (but the narrative also travels to Jamaica, Turkey, and Bangladesh). WHITE TEETH stands out as one of my favorite books of all time. While reading, I felt as if I were living with these characters--people who struggled with race, identity, assimilation, gender politics, the immigrant experience, and more. Smith's levity eases the weighty subjects without undermining them, and the sprawl of characters, subplots, and exotic locales saturated the novel with a bold and buoyant exuberance.
The immigrant experience in a post-colonial world is also a central theme in her latest book, NW. Here, her style is more existentialistic. You feel as if you are eavesdropping on conversations, sometimes desultory, or streaming a character's thoughts. Each main character has his or her specific rhythm and patois, and soon I got into the groove. It seemed a bit more challenging to stay with than all her other novels, but I enjoyed the whole, actually, more than each individual part. I felt no less gripped by the end of the novel than I had in WHITE TEETH or ON BEAUTY, but the journey here was different, way more technique-oriented to arrange a pattern of sound or a flashing glimpse.
Childhood friends Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell grew up in the council estate housing area of Northwest London. Keisha, of Jamaican ancestry, becomes a lawyer, and marries up. Red-haired Irish (ancestry) Leah, who is also educated, marries a Nigerian hairdresser and has too much goodwill guilt to leave the council flats or seek a more lucrative employment. Nevertheless, she harbors some envy toward Keisha's yuppie lifestyle.
It wasn't until near the last third of the novel that I knew I was on track with the characters. Many of them stroll, or walk, a lot, and the reader is challenged to go with the flow and not try to think too much about analyzing. For much of the book, it felt like I was trying to hold a cool, airy substance in the palm of my hand. Eventually, it comes together, becomes solid, and the frame holds a picture filled with color, light, and emotional clarity. In the meantime, every short, titled section gives a clue to a character's sensibilities, such as:
"It's really an epidemic. That is, they were always there, in the same numbers as they are now, but now it is called an epidemic. A recent headline in The Standard, NORTHWEST FOX EPIDEMIC, and a photograph of a man kneeling in a garden surrounded by corpses he's shot. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Dozens and dozens! says Leah, and that's how we live now, defending our own little patch, it didn't used to be like that, but everything's changed, hasn't it, that's what they say, everything's changed."
Eons ago, in my ante gr days, I picked up Zadie's (because "Smith" is ambiguous, and "Ms Smith" doesn't work like "Ms Young" does ; but I'm not really happy either with saying "Dorothy Richardson" just because that one guy wrote The First Novel (knot!)) White Teeth looking for those kinds of novels which came after Infinite Jest. I also read Egger's first thing ; but didn't see my way forward with him. Zadie had that zing, that promise thing. But beyond her collection of essays it took me many years to return to her because I got distracted by the depth of all those novels which came before Infinite Jest. aIJ & bIJ? So but anyways, a shame I left her NW so long on the shelf. I found myself quite happy with it, even if it wasn't on the level of WT. But then immediately I began upon her On Beauty and am not so pleased ; and not because the characters, &c, but because so far it is just so plain, as in literary=fiction=genre plain. Hoping still for some fireworks and fewer s/he saids+adverb.
And then too I'm holding out for a 1000=page brick from Her Greatness.