Sunday, 30 August 2015

Carnival: NW by Zadie Smith


published 2012

August Carnival NW 1August Carnival NW 2August Carnival NW 3August Carnival NW 4Notting Hill  79  Moira  4Notting Hill  79  Moira 2Notting Hill  79  Moira 3Notting Hill  79 Moira


August comes.

  August comes.

Carnival! Girls from work, boys from the salon, old school friends, Michel’s cousins from south London, all walk the streets with a million others. Seeking out the good sound systems, winding their bodies close to complete strangers and each other, eating jerk, ending up in Meanwhile Gardens, stoned in the grass. Usually. Not this year. This year they finally accept Frank’s annual invitation to a friend of a friend’s with ‘an amazing carnival pad.’ They turn up early on the Sunday morning, as advised, to get there before the street is closed off…

Leah accept a rum and Coke and sits in a corner chair, looking out the window, watching the police lining up along the barricades….

Now the flat fills very quickly. The doorbell rings continuously… People stream into the party like soldiers into triage. It’s hell out there! I thought we weren’t going to make it. Everyone takes turns to stand on the white stucco balconies, dancing, blowing whistles painted in Rastafarian colours at the carnival crowds, far below. Very soon Leah is drunk…. Nat’s coming later. She’s with the kids on one of Marcia’s church floats. Sausage roll?


observations: Today sees the start of this year’s Notting Hill Carnival in London.
The Carnival is a key part of London life in August – a huge street party, one of the largest in the world, with a massive parade with floats, costumes and dancing. Over the two days, culminating in August Bank Holiday Monday, a million people take to the streets in what is usually a rambunctious but peaceful enough event. Every year there are fears and threats, discussions over the police presence, and concerns over public safety. There is plentiful and varied music, food and drugs on offer. Carnival is a terrific celebration of the multi-cultural diversity of modern Britain.

It’s a central part of this book, which is itself a celebration of London life: the Carnival brings together the different strands of the story – see this earlier entry for details of the plot.

The book is very good on the two young women, Nat and Leah, getting older and comparing how they are doing. Just as at school they reached a point where ‘They had only Prince left [in common] and he was wearing thin’ – here Leah doesn’t know Natalie’s friends, while Nat herself is trying to find common ground with her family by going on a float.

Natalie is the high flyer: when she goes to university and meets privileged white young people, she wonders ‘Were these really the people for whom the Blakes had always been on their best behaviour?’ Her strategy for getting on is ‘Do good work. Wait for your good work to be noticed.’ She has a short fascinating encounter with an older black female barrister/judge, who wants to give her good advice.

There is a big variety of voices and styles, most of them very well done. I particularly liked the community activist Phil Barnes, living next door to Felix’s father and talking about the past and his sense of belonging. I liked the rich boy’s parents, who wouldn’t understand ‘downstairs neighbour’ or ‘night bus’ or ‘unpaid internship’.

The top four photos are from Wikimedia Commons, of recent carnivals.

The bottom four photos are ones I took myself at the Notting Hill Carnival back in 1979.











14 comments:

  1. Not one I'll be reading. Never attended the event, and no real desire to either. People dressing up, rubbish music, massive crowds, no toilets.....no thanks! I similarly pooh-pooh Mardi Gras and Rio's Carnaval if anyone was thinking of inviting me!

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    1. We need a new character - like Scrooge of the Grinch for Christmas, we need the Person who Doesn't Like Carnivals and Festivals, bah humbug. I must say I wouldn't want to go at my age, but I can see why young people like them, and I went to a few in my day....

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  2. Oh, this does sound like a good read, Moira! I like the idea of using the carnival as the background for the story. It's different, even exotic; yet it happens every year and it's part of life. Nice touch, I thought. And I'm always one for solid character development. I'll bet you found a lot to love about the costume descriptions, too. :-)

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    1. You are so right Margot - the costumes are amazing and inventive and colourful - in books and in real life. I say to Col above that I am too old for carnival, but there's a bit of me wishing I was there....

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  3. Moira, I have never read Zadie Smith but I have read good things about her work. I have seen a few carnivals in childhood and generally enjoyed them. They are not common in India.

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    1. I'd be interested to hear about the Indian equivalent Prashant - I know (partly from your blog) that you have some amazing festivals and celebrations.

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    2. Moira, India's premier carnival is held in the world-famous tourist state of Goa, on the southwest coast of the country. Goa used to be a Portuguese territory until 1962, hence the influences of carnival and other such cultures. I grew up in Goa and had a ringside view of several carnivals.

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    3. Thanks Prashant, I'm going to see if I can see some pictures of the Goa carnival online...

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  4. Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth is brilliant in my opinion, lots of satire about British life in many varieties.

    Don't know if NW is as good, have heard mixed reviews.

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    1. I actually preferred NW to White Teeth, Kathy - I think she's better writing contemporary stuff, I didn't feel the older sections of WT worked.

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  5. Really? It shows how we all have different tastes. Also, you know more about British history and the feel of the country.

    To me, the satire was brilliant, the two war veterans reliving their battles in the pub, the middle-class couple's hypocrisy, and a lot more.

    I'll try to read NW. I also read her novel about academia. I liked some of the women characters, and the hypocrisy shown, but overall I don't know. I haven't recommended it nor do I criticize it. Is it In Beauty?

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    1. It's called On Beauty - and I read both of her earlier books in pre-blog days, so have no real record of what I thought. I do know I liked NW a lot more than either of them....

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  6. The style of writing here does not appeal to me, but I never say never. Just not now.

    I have to agree with Col, this type of celebration doesn't appeal to me. But I did go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans once in my early twenties when still living in Tuscaloosa, AL (U. of Alabama). Interesting, but I loved the French Quarter more in a later visit when visiting book stores and eating gumbo.

    There is a good Mardi Gras scene in The Pelican Brief (the film) and also in the book, which is the only Grisham book I have read so far, and I read it twice.

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    1. This is very much her style, so be warned! I think festivals and parades and carnivals are a young person's game- I did enjoy them in my 20s but not now. As you say, bookstores and nice food are my aims on a visit...

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