Wednesday, 10 December 2014

NW by Zadie Smith

published 2012




[In the street, Felix meets a young man he knows] Together they looked over at the towers of Caldwell, not 500 yards away. ‘Apple ain’t fallen far from the tree, bruv, for real.’ This trigger gave up at least the surname: Khan. Of Khan’s minimart, Willesden. All that family looked the same, many brothers, running the place for their father. This must be the youngest. Caldwell boys back in the day, two floors below the Coopers…

‘And you living back here now?’ ‘My girl lives just there.’ He indicated the supermarket sign with his chin, ‘Felix, man, you properly local. I remember when you was working in there.’

Felix glared over the boy’s head to the empty basktetball cage across the street in which no-one had ever played basketball or ever would.





[Felix is looking at old photos with his father] Afros, headscarves, cane rows, weird stiff wigs, a tall, skinny spiritual-looking Rasta resting on a big stick. … Style without money, without any means whatsoever. Charity-store nylons worn sharply. Battered Clarks coming off like the finest Italian shoes. BLACK POWER sprayed in three-foot-high letters on the garden wall. Strange to see here, confirmed in black and white, what he had all his life assumed to be a self-serving exaggeration. 




observations: I was reading this book while travelling on the London underground (appropriately enough, the characters are all travelling around the city all the time), and a young woman said ‘do you mind if I ask you – is this book worth persevering with? I’ve started it, I hate it, should I just give up?’ I was able to say to her: don’t give up, do carry on – the first section is unreadably bad, but then it suddenly gets much much better. It is very, very strange, and I have rarely changed my mind so radically about a novel.

NW means the North West of London, and the book deals with London life over the past 30 years, through the eyes of a group of young people. It gives the impression of being brilliantly authentic: I did NOT find two of Zadie Smith’s previous books authentic in two specific ways – in White Teeth she wrote a lot about a past she did not live through, and didn’t bother even to try to get it right in all kinds of details (I feel she was not helped by her presumed editors of the time.) In On Beauty she wrote about American life in a similarly bizarre way - she was a visiting academic there for a short time, but gave no impression of knowing even the simplest facts of US ways. (I know this is not a popular view to criticize her for this.) But this time – she certainly convinced me.

The first section – nearly 100 pages - is a stream of consciousness and is tricksy, annoying, meaningless. I presume Smith was being fun and experimental, but I hated it. And it’s such a waste of her talents – the next section, following the young man Felix, is told straightforwardly and is absolutely wonderful, so well-done, so completely engrossing. But still – Felix’s story is just dropped in the middle and has only a geographical connection with the rest, I wish the different parts had been linked up better.

Another young man, Nathan, drifts through the novel, but most of the rest deals with Leah, white Irish, and the black Keisha/Natalie: all four characters grew up on the same council estate, Caldwell. (She must have intended the strange coincidence that Leah is called Hanwell, but why?) Leah falls to the side really, and Natalie is the key character for the final section. I found her story fascinating. The whole book (once Leah’s opening section was done) was an engrossing page-turner. After finishing it I have some questions and reservations. I really objected to the line ‘Reader, keep up!’ in the book – particularly as it was two pages away from what I can only guess was a typo – a reference to Natalie as Mrs Blake when ‘Ms Blake’ was clearly intended (Mrs Blake would be Natalie's mother). I seem to be keeping up better than the author and her publishers.

But then, I did love lines like this:
Old Hindus… wear their saris with jumpers and cardigans and thick woolly socks. They look like they have walked to Willesden from Delhi, adding layers of knitwear as they progress northwards.
I don’t think it was a perfect book, but I still stand by what I said to the young woman on the Tube platform: well worth reading. But maybe skim the first section?

14 comments:

  1. Moira, "Don’t give up, do carry on," is the kind of advice I'd give for any book, even if I don't like it very much. That quote about old Hindus got me smiling. People wear jumpers, cardigans, and woollies on all kinds of clothes including over saris, kurta-pyjamas, and shirt and pant.

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    1. You are quite right, Prashant, we should always persevere. And thanks for the extra clothes detail, you made me smile too!

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  2. Moira - It does sound a bit of a mixed bag. I do like that look at life from different perspectives. At the same time, I think I like a bit more focus and coherence in the parts of a story. Perhaps I'm too linear in my thinking? The bits you shared show a solid writing style, thought. Hmmm....on the fence on this one, but there's definitely some interesting stuff there.

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    1. Definitely an interesting writer, and one to watch. And like you, I love that look at a different perspective, a different culture, a different life.

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  3. Not very often that a stranger will talk on the tube, let alone make anything other than fleeting eye contact. I quite like the sound of it but not at the minute. I've not tried her other stuff either, but I'll bear this in mind.
    I used to love my son regaling us with his tube journey tales on the way to college and work.....those were the days....sniffs and wearily wipes eye...

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    1. It does give a nice picture of London life, and the people in it seem very real, even if I'm arguing with some of her writing style. Will you son be home for Xmas to regale you with new tales....?

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    2. Home tomorrow briefly - it's the MK Christmas Panto with a guy from Neighbours! Then he's off to Berlin for 5 days on Saturday - so we'll catch up in a week's time! Happy days :-)

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    3. Oh good! they get so busy. And in my house, they drive me mad when they're here, but I still miss them when they're not....

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  4. Moira: I tried White Teeth but could not get through it. I felt old as it seems my sons' generation loved it. I doubt I can skim 100 pages so I do not expect to start this book. I think I am more linear than Margot.

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    1. I think you've given her a fair chance Bill! Her style is definitely not for everyone.

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  5. I guess I should try to read NW. I've heard mixed reviews from fans of Zadie Smith's fiction, so I put it aside mentally. Maybe I'll try it.

    And I am a reader who loved White Teeth. I could hardly fathom how someone so young could have written such a fascinating book. And the satire! That was a winning element for me.

    I'm not sure what you think was inaccurate. I'm not from England nor do I know the specifics of what you are referring to.

    I liked the characters, the relationships, the satirical renditions of each person and family. I laughed out loud so many times reading this book, thinking the author had just captured the type of person or their family or their dialogue so perfectly.

    So I don't know what was lacking.

    On Beauty was all right with me, not a rave, not disliked. I liked some of the characters and I thought some of the characterizations of U.S. academia were fine. And, as usual, I think the writer was spoofing much of the time.

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  6. If you loved White Teeth I think you might like this one. I am glad you enjoyed it so much - I very much like the parts set in the present, and I thought it was well-written, but her feel for the past wasn't good. She does write well about London.

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  7. This author may be worthwhile but I have too many other authors I want to get to, so don't plan to give her a try. Good to get your opinion on her books. In general I only go away from mystery if pushed really hard (by interesting topics or places, for example), so it is not specifically her books I am avoiding.

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    1. I wouldn't be trying to change your mind on that one Tracy: she is definitely a very interesting writer with some great ideas, but she needs a fair amount of effort, and would not be for everyone. Stick to mysteries!

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