Monday, 27 March 2017

NW by Zadie Smith

I finished NW last weekend, and I've been trying to get my thoughts in order to sit down and write this review since then. The book continues to stymie me - I liked it, quite a lot, and yet I feel like there are aspects of it that I'm not quite grasping. I think that may be my own fault - reading it was unusually broken up, with a week off while I went away to a convention and then a bunch more days when I was busy coming down from that experience when reading was not on the top of my priority list.

When I got back to it, I flew through the last 140 pages, but it had been long enough between the first and second halves that I'm quite sure Zadie Smith's work was playing to the best audience at that moment.

That being said, let's find out what I do want to mention about the book. I picked it up as one of the last few books I have to read from a 15 book list of "The Best Novels of the 21st Century So Far". It's a good list - I've really enjoyed all the books on it, and when I'm done (I have two or three books left to go) - I'll look to see if the people who put it together have any additions since then.

I don't know if I enjoyed this quite as much as White Teeth or On Beauty, but there are things about it that are very striking. It's an odd connection to make, but there are a few books I can think of recently that link the geography of London, England to narrative in intimate ways that I have quite enjoyed. This is about the northwest corner of the city, where it seems that old council housing is sitting cheek-by-jowl with newly gentrified areas. I don't know enough to know how long it has been that way, but is certainly the case in this book.

In that, the book is broken into three sections, even though the inside of the dust cover says it's about four people. The fourth drifts through each of the other three stories and never quite achieves a story of his own, although others tell his regularly, that of school crush and golden boy turned drug addict.

Each of the three who get a section are negotiating upward mobility of one sort or another, while still feeling how they are rooted in spaces outside the ones they now occupy. Two of the three point-of-view characters are Black, while the third is a white woman who married a Black immigrant from the Caribbean. Leah, the white woman, lives in circumstances that her mother seems to regard as a step-down from how she was raised, although she seems content enough there, while her husband engages in day-trading in an effort to make the money materialize that would allow them to move into a more affluent house.

In contrast, her childhood friend Natalie is a lawyer, married to a rich investment banker, and both Natalie and Leah have suspicions about the marriages of the other, although both marriages are more complex and hiding more than even those in them seem to recognize. Natalie lives a wealthy lifestyle, but when her section comes we see how carefully it and every word she says are curated to have the correct effect.

Indeed, her entire section is itemized, and much of it is about the estrangement of Natalie from herself, and the ways that she secretly acts out when the persona isn't enough.

The sections of the two women are separated by that of Felix, a man raised in communal/squatting housing, was long on the shady side of the market, but with a new relationship, is trying to change himself and his surroundings to fit with the woman he is now with.

The ways these stories fit together is both obvious, in the actual happenings in the plot, and much more intricate, in ways that show dissatisfaction and reaching, belonging and being a misfit, never quite leaving behind the stories and families that comprised their early environments. There were times I wanted to shake nearly every character, while still being fond of them all.

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