In approaching this book, I’ve been wondering how to avoid reading it – and writing about it – as Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, when it is, undeniably, her first novel in seven years. Such a formulation creates expectations of something massive, epic, exhaustively life-encompassing. Most of all it sustains the illusion that the author really was working on the book for all of the intervening period. This does happen, but rarely. Yet we know that Smith, after On Beauty (2005), had many other things to occupy her, not least becoming a parent. She has, perhaps to dampen expectations, called her new novel a “very, very small book.”
NW is a small book – in page count, Smith’s shortest novel yet. There is not a scrap of fat on it. But it unfolds, like an origami water lily, and contains multitudes. Indeed it is by making it such a small book – set in a few square miles of north-west London – and making us so intimate with her few characters, that Smith has created such a rich experience for the reader. After Hawthorn & Child, it feels like the second great London novel of the year (and yes, I did try Lanchester’s Capital). It feels, in fact, like a refinement of White Teeth and a focusing of that novel’s messy but charming potential, speaking of the encounters and fields of exchange that take place in a world city: even in part of it.
The window logs Kilburn’s skyline. Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety roller-coaster. Higgledy-piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box.
These encounters are across social and racial boundaries, and show how people who share the same streets, and labour under the same governments, engage, or fail to. There are three main sections to the book, though the characters sometimes cross into one another’s pages, to emphasise the point. Leah Hanwell anchors each end of the book. At the beginning (‘Visitation’), she has just discovered that she is pregnant, when she answers the door to a young woman, Shar, who needs to borrow money urgently. Shar is garrulous, gabby, half-charming; Leah is more distant, at a disadvantage. Shar lives in the nearby Garvey House council block, where Leah grew up (“From there to here, a journey longer than it looks”). The friction of their exchange sets up a charge that runs through the book.
Leah lives with her husband Michel, from whom she has secrets, and their dog Olive (“ridiculous, adored”). Leah’s character is cool, perhaps cold, and it is a notable achievement to convey this in prose as likeable and slinky as Smith’s. Her ease of style and lightness of touch are there on every page, and she is very good on the internal uncertainties which paralyse us all yet drive our actions. She uses a scattering of textual styles and surprising inclusions – a chapter in Google Maps directions, a cacophony of workplace voices running down the page, one character’s internal monologue proclaiming ‘EPIC FAIL’ – which reflect the wild diversity and modernity even of this one corner of the city. Crucially, she writes fluently about race: her characters have various ethnicities, but it is through others’ awareness of their racial and cultural differences that abrasions and illuminations occur. Leah’s mother, castigating her for lending Shar the money (“robbed on your own doorstep by a Gypsy”), places her trust in Michel. “You can’t con his people so easy.” (“All of them are Nigerian, all of them, even if they are French, or Algerian, they are Nigerian, the whole of Africa being, for Pauline, essentially Nigeria…”) Leah’s colleagues offer a passive-aggressive word of advice:
no offence, but for the women in our community, in the Afro-Caribbean community, no offence, but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue. It’s just a real issue you should be aware of. No offence.
The pleasure is that these brief phrases pack so much in, not only about those speaking – you can hear the very voice and tone in that last excerpt – but about their relationship to Leah, and touch too the book’s wider themes. Leah herself is a fascinating character, resisting change (“why must love ‘move forward’? What way is forward?”) and seeing increasing disparity between her life and that of her oldest friend, Natalie, now a lawyer and a parent. “Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”
The risk for an author in a composite novel like this is of frustrating the reader when cutting away from an interesting character. Here – and again comparison with Hawthorn & Child is inevitable – Smith achieved the rare feat of taking me out of a story I was enjoying, and making me enjoy the next one even more. In the second part, ‘Guest’, the book moves up a gear in its depiction of how people engage across divides. Felix Cooper is 32 years old and a charming man – no mean trick to make a former drug dealer the most likeable person in a book – and his story is the most perfect self-contained part of NW. He is an urban creature, who “had been to Wiltshire once and returned astounded.” He has a series of encounters on his way to meet his sometime girlfriend, and former customer, Annie. He meets his feckless father Lloyd (one of the few family connections Felix has left: brother in prison, mum gone), an elderly neighbour Phil Barnes, and Tom Mercer, a posh young man selling a car. The awkwardness of Tom’s inept negotiations with Felix – an unease which goes beyond the generic discomfort of a middle-class householder struggling to make conversation with the tradesman – is a comic highlight of the book. Much more brittle is his meeting with Annie, a privileged but damaged young woman, one of those who “could fall and fall and fall and still never quite hit the ground.”
Smith breaks the story again, and takes a bigger risk, in the third section, ‘Host’, which occupies most of the second half the book. This gives us a scattered history of Leah’s friend Natalie – born Keisha – told in short, numbered sections, like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge. Natalie, even while she is still a child, while she is still Keisha, fears that she has no identity of her own (“You are making it up as you go along,” she chides herself): so she creates one. The story of Natalie and Leah is of drive and no drive: or of Drive and Neutral. The representation of Natalie’s adolescent and post-adolescent angst is just so: “she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.” A finely judged teenage pretension also slips into the numbered sections themselves, and their titles too, which if read straight might seem to run close to affectation. It is into this part of the book that parenthood (“her whole life had essentially become work”) comes in full flood; parenthood, and the absence of it, running through the novel.
It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoilt children sat upon the floor, flicking through past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence – outside dream and miracle – until very recently. Until just before now.
It may be this part that Smith refers to in this interview, where she says that she rewrote the last third of the book after her husband, Nick Laird, told her it had gone “very wrong”. There remains a strangeness to it, an ill-fitting quality. This may be a function of the staccato telling: screengrabs of a life which don’t create an illusion of wholeness as Connell’s Bridge books do. It may be of the sadness which begins to overwhelm the book in the second half, and sits oddly with Smith’s always sparky prose. Yet the more I thought about this section, the more I felt that these were ‘problems’ that, more than anything, demand another reading to get to grips with. (Increasingly, I am of the view that I should read a book twice before committing any thoughts to writing at all.) New things are, by definition, strange, and NW feels new all the way through. It’s almost in the title. The book is full of how we live now, but it has a traditional feel for people, and for language across generations and social classes: like a third way between Smith’s two directions for the novel. It also feels like a breakthrough for Smith, in a sense her first mature work. Her previous novels were written before the age of 30, and ultimately fell down to a greater or lesser extent: books I enjoyed, but wouldn’t reread. Not so NW, a novel altogether tighter and trickier to unlock. My feelings about it are similar to those for Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room: quibbles while reading, once I began thinking and writing about it, began first to dissolve and then to transform into praiseworthy qualities. Not incidentally, I was softened up a little by finding an author at the top of her game who shares so many of my cultural references: a late-thirties thing, I suppose. How many novels, after all, contain a chapter titled Spectrum 128k?