Reviewed by Sheheryar B. Sheikh
PERHAPS Zadie Smith is trying too hard to live up to the hype that was created around her debut novel, White Teeth. Or maybe she honestly wants to take the novel form further, as she claims is possible in many of her essays on the subject. In her latest novel, NW, Smith experiments more than she has before, with several forms both old and new. Though she builds a compelling narrative, it suffers from several clichés, some awkwardly bad writing and jarring contrivances. Given the exhibition of her genuine talent in several passages, though, it is hard to give NW a miss. In fact, the audacious experiment deserves to be read for having failed Smith’s grand ambitions.
NW is set in north-west London for the most part and is principally concerned with four characters: Leah Hanwell and Keisha (later Natalie) Blake, best friends whose relationship evolves over time; Felix Cooper, who serves as the sacrifice in a tragic backdrop; and Nathan Bogle, the man who lives on London’s streets. They originate from the same estate housing and poverty from which Leah and Natalie have escaped to various degrees. Felix blew his chance and Nathan claims he never had any.
A clash between people from different classes is how the novel begins. Leah’s doorbell is rung by a conwoman, Shar, who builds a sob story about an ailing mother and Leah gives her 30 pounds. It’s a touching moment for Leah and she “says something she has never said in her life: God bless you.” For that embarrassing blessing, and also for realising she has been conned, Leah reacts viciously to Shar in several subsequent run-ins. Though the area is small, such run-ins are manufactured by the author to an unbelievable degree. It would perhaps have been better to leave Shar as a phantom than to make her reappear at several intervals throughout the novel.
The novel is mainly devoted to explicit and covert comparisons between the “Afro-Caribbean” Natalie and “white” Leah, and their dissimilar marriages. Natalie climbs out of Caldwell’s housing projects by taking a social leap and marrying Frank, who is half-Italian. Leah marries a hair stylist, Michel, who is “more beautiful” than her. Tragically, both women ruin their marriages, and by means that are not new in fiction. Leah, tortured by the death of her dog, is left bereft of happiness. She refuses to let anything be born that will die and starts taking contraceptives without informing Michel.
Natalie, on the other hand, who seems happily married from the outside, disintegrates even further. She becomes a prostitute as depicted in two short vignettes. When her husband finds out the truth there is a brief confrontation, as all action in the novel is brief. Action takes up minimal space, and is congealed together, leaving a large part of the book for Smith’s digressions and philosophical meanderings. At times pedantic, and at places revelatory, the quality of the prose see-saws uncomfortably. There are times when the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, asking her audience: “Do you?” This is uncomfortable in the best of books. Here, it is menacing.
Smith has also used other techniques to convey the multi-layered nature of the narrative. In the first section, writing from Leah’s perspective, Smith builds a stream-of-consciousness flow that fuses the narrator and character’s authority over the story. In the second, Felix is seen, for the most part, from the outside, though with the same narrator’s voice, as he lives out his last day visiting his father, buying a used car, and messing around with an ex-flame. Almost all of the scenes from Felix’s life are hackneyed and boring — except when he goes to buy a car from an inexperienced kid. Smith handles the tensions of nascent acquaintanceship very well. When Felix describes his ex as an “oppositional woman,” Tom the car-seller laughs before noticing “that Felix had not meant to be funny. ‘Sorry — I just — well, it’s a good phrase for it. I think that may be what I’ve got on my hands. An oppositional woman.’”
“‘Listen, if I told Jasmine the sky’s blue, she’d say it’s green, you get me?’”
Dialogue is definitely Smith’s forte. She can handle any topic and make the conversation sound realistic. However, dialogue is merely half the game of human interaction. The other half needs a lot of work in NW. Especially in the third section, which breaks down into 185 short, numbered passages dealing with the chronological but disjointed development of Natalie’s life. Despite the disparity in forms, the narrative voice does not change. It does speed up, and thereby relinquishes Smith’s wonderful grasp on the longer sentence, but it does not change. A break in voice, to provide authentic distance from Leah’s narrative, could have served Natalie’s life snippets better.
The most wondrous sections of the novel come right at the end, once Natalie’s extravagant indiscretions have been discovered. She leaves the house and walks the streets. And of course, she runs into the hobo Nathan Bogle. Nathan leads her, then follows her, and while there is nothing sexual about their intimacy, many boundaries are broken. Natalie’s misconceptions about Nathan’s life come to thefore and he disillusions her quickly. He says of his days on the street and of his friends on the street: “I don’t live like you. You don’t know nothing about me. Don’t know nothing about my girls. We’re a family.” It’s a closer family than her own nuclear one, and it’s closer than she can ever have. Because she goes back to her husband, and though he does not start speaking to her, they at least attend to their children.
Some critics have likened NW’s meandering parts to Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. Others have compared her stream-of-consciousness usage to Woolf’s. But there cannot be any comparison. Smith achieves far less than those “towering dead,” as Dylan Thomas used to call literary giants. All Smith has done is break her own shackles and free herself from conventional form. Next time, she can work on producing more original content as well.
The reviewer teaches communication and literature at Lums, BNU and LSE
By Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, UK