(WARNING - CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Zadie Smith's fourth novel, NW, came highly recommended to me by two friends, and also, naturally, by its authorship - Smith's 2005 book, On Beauty, is one of my favourite novels of the last decade, without question. So I came to NW primed to like it, and, despite its mixed critical reception, I was not disappointed. In my view this is an insightful, at times compelling, text of modern malaise, identity fragmentation, loss, and the sometimes painful, often blurry, always incomplete, search for meaning that is one of the Ur themes of human existence.
NW is a story in four uneven sections, mostly revolved around two women, Leah and Keisha / Natalie, who grow up in Willesden, a council estate in north-west London; and, to a lesser extent, Felix, whose timeline crosses Natalie's at a critical point, but whose own story, told in just a few chapters, I found to be almost unbearably moving. Leah and Natalie, despite being of the same socieconomic background, and lifelong best friends, are different in almost every other way.
Leah, compassionate and physically open, is white, an only child, unambitious professionally, married to and in love with her French African hairdresser husband, Michel - and also adrift, formless, shuttered, emotionally muted. Natalie, ostensibly serious-minded, straight-laced, professionally driven, is from a Caribbean (and Christian) family, is an upwardly mobile young barrister married to Frank, a rich financier, mother of two small children, holder of dinner parties, addict of her smartphone, work and "dressing up" - and also alone, playing her various identities like masks in a desperate bid to find one that feels less like an act.
Their stories are stories, ultimately, of disconnection, of silent suffocation, of inner worlds and how shockingly they can differ from outward appearances. These are women living lives of quiet desperation, sometimes almost unknown to themselves; Leah, who feels her life from a distance, like a ghost looking in; and Natalie, who had "become a person unsuited to self-reflection. Left to her own mental devices, she quickly spiralled into self-contempt." (p 221) The contrast note is provided by Felix, the character who, in novel terms, is born to die, yet is infinitely more than the simple red-shirt he might have been. Felix is hopeful, expectant, in love and moving on; yet he's killed, all the same, in a senseless act of violence, and a scene that I found extremely affecting precisely because of its understatement.
This is a novel rich with an almost singsong cadence, employing the language and idioms of its area to great, almost poetic, effect. (From me, this is high praise - I am usually not a fan of dialect in novels, unless I feel it makes an intrinsic and real contribution to the story, rather than just being grafted on for surface colour, as so often seems to be the case).
It's also of its moment, without being in any sense twee. Smith weaves the connect/disconnect paradox that permeates the 21st century western relationship with technology into her story in a way that is utterly natural and never jarring. Natalie, in particular, is "helplessly, compulsively, adverbly addicted to the Internet" (p 224), a circumstance that enables - or perhaps creates - one of the central crises of the story, which is also the only really clunky and ineffective plot device Smith employs. (I should note here that that particular trope - outwardly respectable, even demure, married woman seeking anonymous sex with strangers - has been permanently ruined for me by the cringeworthy The Bride Stripped Bare. I find it almost impossible to take seriously now, even in an otherwise good book).
I found Leah - the generous, the physically free, the emotionally shut-in - to be an interesting character, but my real empathy and identification was with Keisha / Natalie. A child with a retentive memory, an inborn tenacity and capacity for concentration that people confused for virtue and high intelligence, Keisha struggles to reconcile what she knows about herself with what others project onto her:
"In the child's mind a breach now appeared: between what she believed she knew of herself, essentially, and her essence as others seemed to understand it. She began to exist for other people..." (p 155)
Thus, so young, is established Keisha's habit of playing parts. She's a nerd, a studious, driven girl, in a churchy, conservative household with a horror of all things physical. She becomes a law student, an activist, and plays those parts with verve but without heat. She remakes herself - Keisha becomes Natalie, marries well, buys a beautiful house still within spitting distance of her childhood area, has two lovely children. She is a workaholic lawyer. All masks, all parts, that she performs with practised aplomb, but which do not resonate. And it's not that these are pretences, exactly; it's not that these are covers for her real self. The real bitterness is that there is no real self to be found.
Natalie feels herself to be a shell, empty, echoing, given substance only by the roles she plays. For her, there is a yearning for a real life, a truth, but no sense that she can attain it, because she lacks any sense of what that might look like for her. It's not just that she doesn't know what she wants or who she is; she doesn't even know how to be someone, how to live truly and deeply. Perhaps it's that frustration, that sense of being in a dark wood wandering, that chimes so deeply for me. It's modernism writ large, the contemporary malaise of identity and purposelessness given voice in one beautifully drawn character. While I do not feel myself empty, self-less, in the way that Natalie does, the sense of multiple selves, of parts that must be played, is one that I think most moderns will profoundly identify with. Our selves are no longer integrated and whole - if they ever were. We are one, but we are many, if you like.
Overall, I found NW to be both rewarding and engrossing. I don't think it's quite as good as On Beauty, but to be honest, I think it's better than at least 6 of the Booker longlist titles - I can't understand why it was left off this year. Its overall tone is, I would say, wistful, despite the many mood shifts it employs; and it will repay a reader looking for story and language, mixed with a little philosophising on the nature of modern existence.
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