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)
First Published: 27th August 2012
Date Reviewed: 29th December 2012
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.
January 16, 2013, 1:29 am
I haven’t yet read a book by Zadie Smith, although I have one of her books in my TBR collection to read. NW sounds like such an interesting approach to a book and you’ve got me curious. I like the underlying concept of the book and will definitely be on the lookout for it. Thank you for your insightful review!
January 16, 2013, 2:17 pm
I’ve been a bit curious about this one but you’ve made me INSANELY curious about it :) Thanks for the great review!
January 16, 2013, 4:24 pm
I want to read this – and I had no clue about it being so experimental until now. I’m a bit scared – lol – but I think I’ll still try it.
January 16, 2013, 6:16 pm
I’m not sure about this one. I like it that it has this experimental writing, but stories? I’m not a short story reader and I wonder if I would get really annoyed with the book.
Maybe I should just pick it up from the library to have a peek and see whether I might like to read it.
January 17, 2013, 1:35 pm
I’m currently waiting for this via the library, I’m about 50/50 fan/indifferent with Smith’s writing and speaking and have no idea whether I’ll enjoy it or not!
January 17, 2013, 11:09 pm
Literary Feline: It is an interesting approach. It shocked me at first because I had no idea, but I think if you know already that it’s experimental you’ll find it easier to get into it. Yes, the concept isn’t immediately obvious, but it would be hard to say it wasn’t there. You’re welcome, and thank you!
Jennifer: Glad to have changed that for you. To be honest I wasn’t totally sure myself at first, I mainly picked it up because I wanted a new popular book, but it paid off. Thanks!
Tanya: It is daunting at first, but it’s inclusive, I think Smith was aiming for artistry and to use the style to get a different angle, rather than make it highbrow (I can’t see any reason for it to be highbrow, it doesn’t suit the subject).
Judith: They aren’t short stories, just three people’s lives in one book, with an effort to connect them. It’s hard to explain but that aspect is quite like many other books. Definitely give it a go. Thank you!
Alex: The only knowledge I have of Smith otherwise is the TV adaptation of White Teeth, so I wouldn’t like to say for certain either way – tentative guess of you liking it.