(I wish my rating system allowed for a more nuanced rating, like 3.5 stars. This book is flawed, but still really great. More on that later.)
A couple of chapters into NW, I had a revelation. “Mrs Dalloway! If On Beauty was a modern take on Howards End, then this must be Zadie Smith’s spin on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway! I’ve got the ‘hook’ for my review!” One quick Google search later, I sank back into my seat. Turns out the rest of the world had had that same idea when the book first came out in 2012, and that Smith had actually discussed Woolf as a direct influence on her book:
I was just trying to find a way to be adventurous and do something new in the writing while still holding on to the things that I can do well, [...] So [Virginia Woolf is] just a good example of a forward-thinking and yet consistently humane writer, and just a great female modernist. An old inspiration returned to me at the right moment.
Well. So much for my spark of brilliance.
Major plot spoiler towards the end of the review.
NW tells the story of three people trying to find their place in life in North-West London, the part where Smith herself lived for some time. As always, it is clear that she is interested in people. Smith zooms in on peculiar details and makes a point of trying to mimic the way her characters would speak, including the occasional “innit” and “blud.” As a result, her characters feel threedimensional, the world lived in. The modernist style really works here, because it allows Smith to explore thoughts, speech, and environment in one big wave of words. Some of my favourite passages in the book are where she describes a conversation while slipping in a character’s thoughts and action in the same breath. Look out for the monologue by Michel, a francophone black man who explains his plans for the future to a barely listening wife – it’s the best.
- and need to see a proper doctor. A clinic. We keep trying. And Nothing. You’re thirty-five this year.
Said Frenchly: nusssing. Once they were the same age. Now Leah is ageing in dog years. Her thirty-five is seven times his, and seven times more important, so important he has to keep reminding her of the numbers, in case she forgets.
Not every experiment works equally well; in the first part of the novel, for example, Smith writes a chapter in the shape of a tree and describes another character’s teeth by creating the picture of a mouth out of words. These moments feel a little out of nowhere and out of place, but luckily they do not occur again in the rest of the book. Another strange choice is not mentioning certain pop culture references by name; Smith is clearly talking about Amy Winehouse and Friends at certain points in the book, but keeps dancing around their actual names. Did she think that it would make her book less timeless? I’m not sure.
At the core of the novel are two friends in the mid thirties, Leah and Keisha. They have grown apart over the years, each taking a different approach to life’s problems. Leah was always prepared for “more”, but finds herself working a thankless job that has nothing to do with what she studied in university. Her husband Michel has big plans for their future and desperately wants to have children, but Leah is terrified at the thought. All she wants is to stand still, to keep things the way they are. She is a relatively passive character who doesn’t fit in anywhere she goes and ends up floating through life, without any clear connection or goal. In the opening sequence of the book, she hears the phrase “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” on the radio. She tries to write it down so she will be able to remember and even implement it, but fails immediately: “Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages.” And so she does nothing.
Keisha, on the other hand, wants to move forwards. She is so determined to climb the social ladder that she has done everything to mould herself into the kind of person who can succeed in society – but finds that she has hollowed herself out in the process. She went to the right school, made the right friends, and even changed her name from Keisha to Natalie to fit in. Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have. Where Leah is passive and internal, Keisha is active and external; she is methodical, convinced that anything can be solved through professionalism. Her segment is built up in the form of a list, a catalogue of fragments. Still, Keisha is continuously agonising over the facade she’s created. She worries that she is not as “real” as other people and ends up overcompensating.
Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag, Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.
Even though Keisha lives in a big house in one of the more expensive neighbourhoods, she drags her children across town to an African supermarket in an attempt to stay connected to her roots.
Between these two narratives, at the centre of the book, we find Felix, a young man unknown to Leah and Keisha. He is a former drug addict, determined to escape his troubled past and make something of himself. Where Leah fails to find agency, Felix definitely considers himself to be “the sole author of the dictionary that defines him.” He wants to cut ties with the people who do not fit into the picture of this new life he wants to create for himself, telling them: “I’ve completed the level, and it’s time to move to the next level.”
NW is a story about class and race in the modern city, where characters all struggle to find the freedom and social mobility they’re looking for. It’s all about agency. Leah was prepared for “more” but never gets there. Keisha worked her way up, but lost herself in the process. At the end of the book, we find both women lying on their back, lost, fractured. Keisha wanders through town in the middle of the night with a former-classmate-turned-homeless-addict, Nathan. Leah lies in a hammock in her garden, caged in by buildings and surrounded by the sound of shouting neighbours. They’re stuck.
Felix, too, never makes it to the top. For all his plans and visions of the future, he ends up getting stabbed to death by Nathan only a few blocks away from his house. He never makes it out. As I read on, I found myself wondering if he ever stood a chance. Being born where he was, growing up the way he did, was he ever going to be able to escape this life? When talking about the downwards spiral of former-classmate-now-murderer Nathan, Keisha remarks:
We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. [...] This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve.
She sounds tough and decisive, but we have to wonder if she’s bluffing. Perhaps she’s lying to herself.
Zadie Smith’s writing style in this book is not going to be to everyone’s liking (I would point those readers towards the more straightforward On Beauty), and there are times where it seems to shine through how frustrated she gets with the limitations of what language can cover. The pacing falters every once in a while, and the whole thing feels more inconsistent then On Beauty did. However, despite the occasional flaw, this is a book that really got me thinking, and I believe that Smith is one of those authors who can truly capture modern life with all its messiness and frustrations. She is a spectacular writer, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.