‘Too bulky for its own form, but … the form itself was huge in scope and ambition’ – NW by Zadie Smith

One of the year’s Most Wanted on the 2012 literary Hit List, NW is, as you’re no doubt sick of hearing, Smith’s first novel in seven years. Reverting back to a London setting (after the transatlantic Forster love-in that was On Beauty), NW has been heralded by its author as a ‘small book’. And I guess, geographically, it is, sticking to a couple of square miles around Willesdon and Kilburn (NW London, in case you’re non-UK and confused), and by page-count, it’s certainly the smallest of Smith’s oeuvre. But, at pushing three hundred pages, it’s no novella, and with three main characters/voices and a determinedly non-standard approach to her prose style, it’s nonetheless quite a beast.

The first of our trio of leads is Leah Hanwell, a charity worker who’s feeling a little lost – at work she’s the only university graduate, amongst her friends she’s the only one who’s not keen on kids, and at home, in her council flat, she feels disconnected from her tower-block roots and isolated from her neighbours and her aspirational husband, Michel. At the very beginning, she’s scammed for cash by a girl who went to her school; at the end (sorry) Michel realises she’s been scamming him, taking birth control pills without his knowledge while he frets about fertility. Then there’s Felix, determined to do well and marry his girl, and trying to shake his drug-dealing past, though he finds it’s not so easy to break free. Last is Natalie Blake, née Keisha, Leah’s oldest friend, who’s changed her name and become a lawyer, married a rich man (the very unappealing Frank), produced two kids and hates her life and the self she has constructed to get her there.

Structurally, Leah opens the story and Felix bridges it, but Natalie dominates – at least in terms of word-count. Having three narrators, or, at least, focalising characters, is something of a ventriloquist’s challenge, and it’s one that Smith has embraced, making NW a much more ambitions novel than those that have preceded it. She hops from tense to tense, plays with typography, dialogue markers, page-layout and lists; it’s not always successful, but it’s clear – if it wasn’t already to those that have followed her non-fiction career – that here’s an author who’s sick of the smooth narrative arc and strict stylistic norms of the novel.  Leah’s opening section has a stream-of-consciousness flow – a staccato, observational, present-tense delivery that I found arresting:

‘Shrivelled blossoms, bitter little apples.  Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start. Look up: the girl’s burnt paunch rests on the railing.

Felix’s section, in contrast, is conventional, past-tense and brief; it anchors the main body of the text in time and so it acts as a fulcrum for Leah and Natalie’s book-ending stories. While Leah’s part has a panicked, disenchanted tone, Felix’s – objectively, the most tragic, despite the women’s existential traumas – is the most matter-of-fact and overtly comic. His encounter with an anxious middle-class kid who’s trying to sell a car for scrap is brilliant, and shows off Smith’s gift for identifying the humour and tension in social unease. Natalie, though, has three sections to herself, and this is where Smith most obviously works through her themes – race and class conflict, the artifice of the financial boom, the dissatisfactions of marriage and the disenchantment of parenthood. The third part is numbered, with Natalie’s past set forth in a series of anecdotes, almost aphoristic in their brevity, notable for a self-deprecating, distant tone – here we witness the transformation of Keisha Blake to Natalie Blake, as told by a Natalie who can’t relate to either version of herself. She’s not the only character dabbling in self-disgust and an inability reconcile poverty and ambition  – Leah, studying philosophy, asks, ‘what was the purpose of preparing for a life ever intended for her?’ and  recalls, ‘Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing-company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone’ – but Natalie’s alienation runs to the core. As a teenager (envying Leah’s apparent self-assurance, interpreted as ‘personality’) she wondered, ‘whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation of all the things she had read I books and seen on television.’ Sitting next to a friend from church, she thinks,

‘That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer, look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know.’

Smart, quiet, uneasy with people, carefully doing all the right things (’She had no intention of being made ridiculous by failing to do whatever was expected of her’), Natalie is miserable and confused when happiness doesn’t automatically descend upon her. Ultimately, all three characters are the outcome of social misalignment – moving between strata (financial, social, racial), they struggle to adapt, move on or fit in – or, at least in the case of the two women, maintain that psychological struggle perhaps beyond necessity. Neither Leah not Natalie can allow themselves the ease of enjoying their situations.

It’s tempting for a reviewer to deploy the autobiographical gambit here – is Smith, a well-to-do, very educated, highly successful woman from NW London, exploring her own insecurities in this novel? But I think the questions of identity, loneliness and fear that she raises are more universal than that, and it would be doing the novel a disservice to return to that tired old ground. Natalie’s depressive spiral and Leah’s disengagement from her life aren’t specific to one corner of one city. But, at the same time, NW celebrates a part of London that doesn’t particularly get celebrated all that often, and despite the many grim outcomes in this book, it’s neither a condemnation of poverty nor a trite celebration of it’s ‘reality’.

Thought-provoking it may be, then, but is it a success? I found it patchy. The opening section – Leah’s narrative – was very engaging. Smith captured the rhythms of speech well and the almost modernist aesthetic in the prose worked. Felix’s section was diverting, but its comparative normality meant I was anxious to move on. Natalie’s numbered biography was interesting – the alienated person recounts her life as a series of annotations, aiming for ironic distance but achieving an unexpected pathos – but I felt it was a little too drawn-out. The final two sections – Natalie’s near-suicidal walk, and her reunion with Leah at the end, bring us back, stylistically, to the almost impressionistic opening section, which was a relief, though, again, I thought the back-and-forth with Nathan was too long. So, despite Smith’s proclamation, I didn’t find it ‘small’; I thought it was too bulky for its own form, but that, all the same, the form itself was huge in scope and ambition.

Any Cop?: It’s not as challenging a read as some of the reports I’d heard suggested, but it’s likely one of the more experimental mainstream novels we’ll see in a while. Of Smith’s work to date, it’s perhaps not the most internally cohesive, but it’s by far the most ambitious and that means, in my book, the one most worthy of a read. Oh, and it’s sad. There are comic moments, sure, but this is as bleak as any existential novel out there, which, again, is a departure. So, consider this a recommendation with a caution attached.

Valerie O’Riordan

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