Zadie Smith’s NW, her first novel in seven years, displays an extraordinary capacity to get inside language. She captures accents, patois and slang. She runs with the sometimes beautiful, sometimes hard rhythms they give us. Her dialogue wrings nuance from the most ordinary exchanges. The novel is, in some ways, a soundscape of north-west London but Smith is also preoccupied by the landscape of home and heart, a landscape hard to escape no matter how grim the home or broken the heart.
Can we leave the place where we are born or do we carry it with us? This question is at the core of a novel that ranges across three distinct perspectives and four characters, all of whom were born on the Caldwell council estate and have since left.
The first section, ”Visitation”, is written from the perspective of Leah Hanwell, the second, ”Guest”, takes up Felix Cooper’s story and the third, ”Host”, unfolds Keisha/Natalie’s life over 185 moments, none of them more than a page or so long, many shorter. Moving like a shadow through their stories is Nathan, the (now homeless) boy they left behind.
Leah’s section is beautifully crafted with dense, nuggety prose that captures thoughts midstream – as if a sentence is a momentary snag – before releasing them. Descriptions float, more like concrete poetry than conventional dialogue or prose. The point of view is deeply internal and intense. There is a saying Leah repeats – ”I am the sole author” – but it seems writing her own life paralyses her. Leah has been lucky enough to find true love but doesn’t seem to realise how easily such love can be lost. Ambivalent about children, she has a passion for her small dog, Olive.
She maintains a friendship with her best friend, Keisha, who is, since becoming a barrister, known as Natalie. Leah’s world is small, complicated and delicate, and is, at the novel’s opening, invaded by a stranger who rattles her beyond reason.
Readers who loved Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, will read echoes of that novel in Felix’s story, which is really just one day in his life – a very important one, it turns out. His facility with language carries us for a superlative 60 pages or so. ”Listen: know what ‘Felix’ means? Happy. I bring happiness, innit?” He buys car parts from a brand consultant whom he insists on describing as ‘in advertising’, much to the man’s chagrin. He visits his former girlfriend, a woman who was once rich and is now feeding a massive drug habit. Felix has struggled with everything from addiction to delusional T-shirts-that-will-make-him-a-million-dollars schemes but he’s bounced back with the energy of a bright man who has the capacity to save himself. He’s funny, he’s gorgeous and he knows a wanker when he sees one. He’s a straight talker but not aggressive. He’s empathetic. He gets the best sex scene of the novel (there isn’t much sex in this book but those scenes are terrifically realised and speak to character in a powerful way). Felix is the jewel at NW’s centre.
Keisha/Natalie’s sequence is the longest and the least satisfying. Many fragments are fabulous: there are diary entries, computer chats, emails and the best ode to the vibrator I’ve read. There is no doubt Smith knows the power of a good list (likes ”Cameo, Culture Club, Bob Marley”, would ”rather have money” than fame and wants ”world peace in South Africa”). Nonetheless, I wasn’t always convinced by her and while that was, to some extent, Smith’s point – that in leaving her background behind Natalie becomes a kind of wraith – there are moments when Natalie teeters on cliche and the key symptom of her dissociation, when it is revealed, didn’t quite work for me. That said, the moment when Natalie reaches her lowest point and walks the night with Nathan, that other wraith, is an extraordinary moment in a very good novel.
Lovers of language and character will revel in the glories of this work but those who enjoy some of the conventions of plot may curse.
While I couldn’t put NW down, there is no doubt it is frustrating at times. The different stylistic approaches and fragmenting point of view lead inevitably to a lack of cohesion – as was, perhaps, intended. How do we make sense of lives, and deaths, that make no sense? How do we find beauty in the smallest of moments, day to day?
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