NW by Zadie Smith

January 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I ordered my copy of NW to arrive on publication date. It was a day or two late. I couldn’t wait! But then I let it sit on the shelf until earlier this month, reluctant to become a person who could no longer be looking forward to reading something new from Zadie Smith. Reading it was nothing but pleasure, of the most exhilarating intellectual kind. I told myself I wouldn’t write about NW. The world was flooded with readers giving their opinions and certainly didn’t need mine. But then some things seem to need to work their way out while other, more pressing, commitments get neglected.

Is there a single action or thought in NW that is not affected and informed–consciously, self-consciously or unconsciously, depending on the character–by class (or socio-economic status, for any North Americans who believe that class only exists where there is aristocracy)? Zadie Smith has a sound understanding of social nuance, the kind of deep understanding that surely only someone who has themselves had to undergo an extreme process of acculturation can demonstrate.

Once you’ve climbed up the ladder, you cannot climb down it the same person. Leah’s section of the book is one long exploration of that sensation, the discomfort of having been prepared for a life that was not for her, whereas Natalie’s is more a Friedan-like cry of “Is this all?” with an inverted life trajectory (from domestic hopelessness, in a sense, to intellectually engaging career).

The thing about Leah and Natalie and Nathan and Felix is that any one of them could (almost) conceivably  have ended up with the life of one of the others. Born at a time when social mobility was probably more possible than it is for children today (free university tuition being part of that, along with the idea, even among Conservatives, that children deserved a chance), the four make very different lives for themselves. For both women, the dissatisfaction with their lives is not so much self-satisfied grumbling as a side-effect of trying to find where they belong. They’ve moved up (and then sort-of down, in Leah’s case) the ladder to varying degrees, but neither of them is comfortable on the rung they’ve settled on. Their misfiring friendship–how glad they are not to be each other! But hang on, what if she is happier than me?–allows them some measurement of how satisfied they should be. Are people who’ve lived on the same rung all their lives less conflicted? It’s impossible for Natalie and Leah to tell without rewriting their own history, and that’s the one thing they can’t do. Other novels try to get at this issue of socio-economic status, dislocation, the idea of having a foot in two worlds and a home in neither, but none do it with as much grace and warmth as NW.

The other great thing about NW is the writing. Zadie Smith’s sentences work so hard. How about this:

There was, however, a moment–a few minutes after the event, once the child had been washed of gunk and returned to her–that she almost thought she possibly felt it.

Or this:

Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were of the belief that people were willing them to reproduce. Relatives, strangers on the street, people on television, everyone.

Both of these slice right to the heart of female conflictedness, particularly strong for a decade or so as extended youth stumbles into approaching middle age, on the subject of childbearing, and the concomitant illusion that the rest of the world really thinks cares whether you decide one way or the other. And then there’s this little gem:

She was watching the poor with Marcia. A reality show set on a council estate. The council estate on the television was fractionally worse than the council estate in which she sat watching the show about a council estate.

It beautifully brings out both the distance Natalie has travelled and our bizarre ideas of what constitutes entertainment. What could be funnier than feeling superior to poor people? Why, poor people feeling superior to poor people, of course. We could even do without the second sentence in the quote above, but then I am a very big fan of the sideways allusions and the refusal to spell things out. And from Leah’s section, this:

Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.

Smith has an ear for dialogue but also for those sneaky little moments when our life changes, when an almost imperceptible but irrevocable shift takes place in our mental picture of the world.

There’s one thing I remain unconvinced by. I don’t think Smith can do endings. About two-thirds of the way through White Teeth it began to feel as though she’d girded herself in preparation for running full tilt at some kind of conclusion. NW is less contrived than that, but still frustrating. But really, after four hundred wonderful pages of frenemyship between emotionally recognisable realism and formal invention, who cares?

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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