Sunday, March 13, 2016

NW by Zadie Smith

Voices from the old neighborhood

Zadie Smith tells the story of four people who grew up on the same council estate; two females, two males; one spectacular success, two middling successes and one spectacular failure. The novel also describes the period of time from the Nineties to the beginning of the Great Recession. The four main characters are: Leah Hanwell, red-headed only child, happily married, secretly resisting her husband’s and mother’s desire that she become pregnant; Felix Cooper, the ex addict, optimistic child of lackadaisical parents, who has big plans for himself and his new love; Natalie Blake, aka Keisha, the ambitious smart girl who isn’t quite sure who she is; and Nathan Bogle, derelict. These four lives intersect in different ways, giving the reader a flavor of contemporary London, the differing expectations of modern women, and the craziness of the human heart. The book also serves as reportage and a recreation of voices from different social classes. The Jamaican, the Pakistani, the Irish, and the African.

This was the second time I read this and it was a fruitful rereading as many details and delights only became apparent on a second reading.  The opening paragraph works on so many levels, in its lyricism and in its establishment of the plot elements. The authorial voice also has many wise insights. The prose is beautiful, and the plot points are inserted smoothly, barely discernible. The expository dialogue is not in the least intrusive. I read this voraciously.

What is with the number 37? Is that their ages? I think it has a mystical significance. There are more than a few Chapter 37s and they sometimes reach to something beyond. Another thing I want to know more about is the how the story fits into the map of London.

The Felix section is exquisite, a recreation of this ordinary man’s ordinary world. Slowly the details of his life build, perhaps even tediously.  There's a great scene when he says goodbye to an old lover.  Or at least means to say goodbye.  Felix's, however, concludes with a deep emotional punch. The first time I read it I cried.  On the other hand, its self contained beauty maybe derails the novel, as it felt like a fully developed novella with little connection to the more mundane problems of Leah and Natalie. The narration at the end, the old feet on the subway seat dilemma, is great, increasing the tension to a high pitch.

The Natalie section, which tells the story of her life in entertaining comical chunks, is also wonderfully written, although here the plot falters. The biggest (maybe only) problem is that the end of the novel doesn’t work – the threads of the plot feel forcibly fused together and it turns into a detective story at the end, but more of the Nancy Drew variety. The causes of this problem, perhaps, are the motivations of the two heroines. Leah does really not want a baby, to the point of having an abortion without telling her much loved, most baby desiring husband. Leah seems like an easy going people pleaser so the strong need to do something so drastic I didn’t quite get. And then she seems to be in some catatonic sunburn situation at the end. Why? She’s sad about her dog? And Natalie, the extremely cautious high achieving workaholic, whose prime motivation seems to be being superior to everybody, suddenly starts cruising for anonymous sex. This might have worked if lust had played any part in her personality before this. The characters come to implausible unsupported realizations just to bring the book to a halt.

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