Features Books Published 2 September 2012

Zadie Smith: NW

With her fourth novel, Smith returns to London and attempts to pin ambiguity to the page.
Carmel Doohan

In elegantly precise, shorthand stage-directions, Smith pulls her world up to the curb alongside us and says Get in. She doesn’t stop; you have to run a little, then throw yourself in a way that is neither comfortable nor expected. There is a barely cursory You in? before she accelerates off. There just isn’t time for the nonsense language usually associates itself with because by the end of the one and a half page first chapter, she has got you to a place most books don’t even attempt to take you in their entirety. She is saying, let’s cut the bullshit. Let’s admit that we see things and we know what they means. Let’s not pretend our outsides are our insides; we all know the truth here.

Set around the trajectories of four people – Leah, Natalie (nee Keisha), Nathan and Felix – who grew up the Cadwell housing estate in Willesden, we spend time some time inside each characters mind. Life has been kinder to some than to others, but it is not always easy to tell which. This is a book about the price of escape, the price of idealism and the price of turning away from it. The very first page offers us this: “Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party.” Leah doesn’t agree with this statement- or doesn’t want to agree. It is in this gap between what she wants to think and what she can no longer deny, that the book takes place.

Smith says that one of the reasons for the fragmentary, stop-start nature of the narrative is that she now has a young daughter and can only write in short bursts. Whatever the reason, it works: we live in bursts; what is life if not a strange combination of absolutely unrelenting continuity and absolutely nothing of the sort. In an interview earlier this month she also said that she wanted to write something like a “problem play…one of those little machines in which you come out the other end and feel odd.” Something akin to Bruce Norris’ play, Clybourne Park, perhaps; plot, merely an excuse for a gentle yet brutally final stripping away of our excuses. In this elegant yet ruthless dissection, NW is similar to Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road (a book that could also, in many ways, be seen as the very necessary novelisation of a play.) Richard Ford’s famous comment about Revolutionary Road also sums up NW : “Handing it over cold feels clumsy. We almost would rather not, for all the crucial things that cannot be thought and said again.”


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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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