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Zadie Smith – NW

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When you look with your eyes, everything seems nice. But if you look twice you can see it’s all lies1.

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Pages: 292
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-2411-4414-5
First Published: 27th August 2012
Date Reviewed: 29th December 2012
Rating: 5/5

Leah opened the door to the desperate girl seeking money for a taxi to the hospital. Later she found out the girl was not who she seemed to be. It’s just another mistake in a long line of mistakes and disappointments for Leah, who has a good relationship with her French husband but many issues that she has not spoken about to anyone. Then there is Natalie, or Keisha, Leah’s best friend who seems to have a perfect life and a great job. And there is Felix who plans to be married and works at a garage. The characters’ stories may not always be connected, but for one element: London.

NW is a particularly experimental novel that explores the plight of those in the less wealthy suburbs of London; the ways in which they live, the ways they are stuck in their current lives, and the ways in which they try to move up in the world. The storytelling is split into three sections – experimental, regular storytelling, and a series of vignettes. Each section roughly focuses on a different character to present an overall visual of urban London.

The busy complicated writing of the experimental section mirrors the madness of London. For example there is one chapter in which Smith includes lines of songs in the middle of a description of a market, incorporating too a description of the individual people. Any confusion caused by the experimental writing (for example a lack of speech marks) is offset by the sheer artistry of the work – a chapter where words are used to form a tree, a visual painted with words, or the chapter called 37 that is about that number and is located on page 37. The vignettes, the latter section, demonstrate that one doesn’t have to include everything to create an effective and fully-described story, especially considering Smith titles each with a summary. So it is the case that just when you think the whole book is going to be ambiguous, because the experimentation goes on for a long tine, Smith turns to traditional storytelling. Indeed it could be argued that the length of the first section is a test for the reader, to see whether they trust Smith enough to go along with it, before the regular narrative takes shape in part two.

Owing to the different characters, the book does not have a linear narrative, and indeed the stories do not connect as much as the reader might assume they would do. The novel is more of a look at London and its people; the relationship between Natalie and Leah being an exercise in comparisons to show the effects of choices on a life, the different effects that “going up in the world” and staying where you were born can both have the same impact, as well as the impacts you would more commonly associate with the other – a switching of life happenings if you will.

Thus the book involves expectations. Expectations of parents for their children, unvoiced expectations, and those we place on ourselves. And what happens when expectations are met but do not satisfy? – Smith provides answers through the choices of her characters.

The story is mostly concerned with the successors of immigrants, Leah being the sole “main character” of white descent. This gives Smith the scope to view events from many angles and to highlight, if in subtext rather than words, the ordinariness of the life of the second generation.

On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.

You would expect such a book as the one described to be somewhat cheerless and to a certain extent that is exactly what NW is. But then the pressures of life are bound to be greater for many in a place which such a focus and determination as London has. NW shows how it can be for those living in a capital when they don’t quite fit the publicised demographic, and in doing so demonstrates how even those who want to change their status can find it difficult. Smith shows a glimpse of the way out, providing an alternative even if it is difficult or impossible to get there. Indeed it is this impossibility that makes the book poignant and at once both timeless and grounded in current affairs.

It may be different, it may be odd, it may present the important in new and sometimes baffling ways, but that is the way Smith chose to say what she wanted to say and as an overall product it works very well.

1 “LDN” by Lily Allen.

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J R Crook – Sleeping Patterns

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Wherever the story ends…

Publisher: Legend Press
Pages: 106
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908775-52-8
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 19th September 2012
Rating: 5/5

Annelie Strandli (Grethe to her friends) presents to the reader a fictional story written by her friend, who is dead. Annelie is herself included in the story, a story of a girl who meets a boy, which in turn contains another story. It seems she took a while to work it all out, but might the reader understand it quicker? The basic plot is that Annelie meets Berry and Annelie wants to read Berry’s work, and he in turn is unhappy that she has a boyfriend.

Many novels have been called unique and powerful, and described as containing incredible depths. If such a number of novels is categorised as a group then Crook’s short work is destined to join it. And yet it can’t, because what Crook has written here is truly different; it is the structure of the plot, the layers of meaning that aren’t contained in the pages and that must be experienced afterwards, that are so individual. What is especially intriguing about the relationship between the text, the reader, and what is implied rather than spoken, is the way in which you can spend a long time, whilst reading, wondering whether or not you will be able to work it out, and a lot more time wondering if for all the reading you have done in the past you might be completely stupid. This being before you work it out. Was such a thing considered by Crook? This in itself is pause for thought because either way the conclusion yields more discussion, of both the text and what the overall purpose is.

Indeed if the summary of the plot, if plot is the word, sounds intriguing, then the structure is all the more so. The reader must start at the dedication page; whereas it is fine to bypass dedication pages in general, in this case to bypass would be to make a mistake. This is because the dedication tells you that Crook is dead, however he is not – it is he who sent this reviewer a copy of the book. And due to the many layers of story, if Crook is not dead and there are already a good few layers of repetition already, then the possibilities are endless and the book may even have a higher level than the reader themselves – in other words the reader may in fact be yet another layer of the story, who knows? Once you’re past the dedication page there is one other element of intrigue and then you start reading the story itself – starting at chapter 5. You don’t need to worry about getting chronological order wrong however, it’s easy enough to keep up. And whilst you could read the chapters in order, there is no bonus to doing so, you might even miss something.

There is a story within a story within a story, possibly with another story before all of that. The reader ought to find it out for themselves. The most inner story, however, is appealing in the way that it is written; Crook is a very good writer yet suddenly this inner story has sections where the plot is written very simply, almost dull in places, juxtaposed with other sections that are more highbrow. Luckily for the reader, apart from the subtext the book is very easy to follow.

The story – whichever story that is – has a romantic basis, subtle so that it will appeal to all, whilst having emotion pouring from it. And the story – this time the obvious one of Crook being the writer of the book – transcends fiction, making the author fictitious as a character himself and Annelie, presented by Crook as fictional, real.

There is a connection between all the stories. At the heart of everything, the author presents himself in the story (the one Annelie presents) as a fly-on-the-wall. But is he? And if Annelie is supposedly real is this non-fiction of sorts? Are we looking into real lives or fictional ones? And why is the author written as dead? We can take what Berry says as fact, but of the rest there is no knowing.

These are questions you will ask yourself, and whilst this reviewer has answers gathered from reading Sleeping Patterns, they could always be wrong and other readers will likely have other questions in addition.

It is impossible to explain this book further without giving the entirety away. Sleeping Patterns requires all of your attention but it will give as good as it gets. If you are looking to be awed and inspired, to be challenged intellectually, and to find love in a different way, this is the one.

I received this book for review from the author.

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