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Author Smith says NW is about language, and I agree. Language is central to our understanding of the characters, and language defines their lives in many ways. I had the good fortune to listen to the audio of this title, brilliantly read by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet. Having access to a paper copy at the same time, I feel confident that the spoken version is an aid to clarity and understanding, and there was true enjoyment in hearing the range of vocal virtuosity by both readers. I did end up listening to it twice.
A clear example of how language can define one is the incident of a boneheaded young man with the posh accent, Tom, selling an old MG to the young man Felix, who had made great strides towards self-realization despite the tug of his background and the brake of his language. Any observer of that scene would immediately suspect Felix of putting the fix on when objectively that would be far from the case. And Keisha, or Natalie as she began calling herself, managed to change most things about her world when she changed her language. She became a barrister and even forgot what it was like to be poor.
But this novel is also about the process of becoming. To my way of thinking, there are only two central characters in the novel, Leah and Natalie. Both resist adulthood, but the choice is not really theirs to make. They become adults despite their attempts to hold back the process, and end up making decisions that demonstrate authorial control over their own lives, and stopping their ears to very loud protestations from their inner selves. Therefore they land in adulthood awkwardly, splay-legged and wrong-footed, and must find a way to right themselves again before acknowledging they are older, wiser, and already there.
Several other minor characters, e.g., Annie and Nathan, manage to avoid true adulthood altogether by burying their options beneath addictions. Felix was the one that was most consciously “becoming.” He strove daily to be a better man--for his woman, for himself, for his future family. He made himself happy doing it. He got clean, “was conscious,” and made himself and his family proud. But demons chased him down. Maybe you can’t really ever get free.
In the last third of the book, a 50-something female barrister “role model” dressed in a gold satin shirt beneath the expected blazer, and a diamante trim to de rigueur black court shoes tells Natalie: '“Turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.” She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”'
Of course I’d heard of Zadie Smith, but I’d never read her early work. She was so popular when she first came into print that I decided to wait to form my own opinion when the clamour died down. Sometimes it is so noisy out there when a new, talented author is heralded that I can’t hear myself think.
I never had the feeling while reading this novel that Smith was haphazard in her choice of images or language. The novel is constructed and in the end one looks up to see graffiti covering a wall with violent scribbles of bright color. Overlaid, a couple words traced in black paint stand out over the rest: SEX RACE CLASS
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
Let me say first that I listened to the audio version of NW, and while it was masterfully read by Karen Bryson, it's the kind of book that probably is better read in print, due to the various stylistic devices that Smith employs. So I will definitely be reading it again.
Smith does an outstanding job of recreating the multicultural community of northwest London in all its grimness and glory. This is a district whose residents reflect African, Caribbean, Irish, Polish, Italian, Indian, Pakistani, Eastern European, you-name-it backgrounds, as well as a large number of mixed race and multi-ethnic persons. For most, life in NW has been hardscrabble, but two longtime friends, Leah and Keisha (who now calls herself Natalie), have somewhat broken out of the neighborhood. Leah, whose narrative opens the novel, has earned a degree in social work, and her decision has been to return to the neighborhood where she grew up. Long on empathy but perhaps a little short on common sense, Leah finds herself in the opening scene giving 30 pounds to Char, a former schoolmate and obvious junkie who knocks on her door with a story about her mother being taken to hospital. Leah's story reflects her confusion about who she is, where she belongs, what she wants out of life--and her marriage to Michel, a Jamaican immigrant. Natalie, on the other hand, has left the neighborhood and seems to have it all: a law degree, handsome husband, beautiful children, big house, trendy wardrobe. Yet she, too, finds that the ties to NW indeed do bind.
Although these two women are the heart of the novel, two young men, Nathan and Felix, also figure prominently and perhaps reflect the darker side of Leah's and Natalie's efforts to change themselves and the neighborhood. Nathan, once the bad boy every girl had a crush on, has gone over to the dark side, dealing drugs and pimping prostitutes. Felix, on the other hand, is cleaning up his act, due mainly to the love of a good woman that he hopes to marry. Their stories intersect with those of Leah and Natalie and with one another's in unexpected ways.
There are moments of humor in NW, but it is a more mature, more serious novel than Smith's first, White Teeth (which I also loved). Here, the consequences of the characters' choices are more severe, and the abiding influence of life in NW more bleakly inescapable. Overall, NW is a brilliant portrayal of life in London's multicultural community. Smith has given us an original and compelling story. I'm happy to see her back on top of her game.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful