Sunday, 8 September 2013

'I ain't free. Ain't never been free': Zadie Smith's NW

Being a Literature student, the summer break means one thing: putting Chaucer on hold for a few months and finally tucking into those books you've been eyeing up all year. Okay, so it’s not just books we look forward to, home-cooked food and double beds are definite game changers, but hey, I was desperate to recover from my roast dinner induced food coma sprawled across my double bed with Zadie Smith’s NW in hand. Sounds perfect, right?!
I was given NW as a Christmas gift and it took extreme amounts of willpower to resist the temptation of throwing all my course books aside and diving straight in. However, in fear of failing my January exams I forced myself to forget about Smith’s previous masterpieces and concentrate on analysing domination in fictional gay sex positions. (I kid you not, oh English Literature, you strange, strange degree). Having fallen in love with Smith’s writing during A-levels when I first picked up On Beauty, and consequently devouring White Teeth and The Autograph Man with the speed of a famished student opening a Domino’s pizza box, I had sky-high expectations for NW.  

For those of you who aren’t aware, Zadie Smith is a British novelist, born in London to an English father and Jamaican mother. Her three previous novels, which have been both shortlisted and winners of a multitude of literary awards, have a strong emphasis on racial tensions within a community, as well as delicately reflecting family life and the small, seemingly insignificant discrepancies and issues, which ultimately lead to the breakdowns of bonds and relationships. As I was about to find out, NW maintains this perfectly crafted exploration of human nature and the way the world truly spins around.
NW follows the friendship and interweaving lives of Leah and Keisha (or Natalie as she later rebrands herself), with the backdrop of North West London continually heightening their racial, financial and class-related struggles as they, and their two peers Nathan and Felix, attempt to begin their adult lives in this increasingly challenging environment. Although Smith uses these four characters throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Leah and Keisha are the real protagonists, as we explore their relationship from children to young adults. In spite of their reasonably similar upbringings and share of mutual values as children, it is Leah and Keisha’s contrasting outlooks on life which causes one of the central conflicts and tensions of the book.

Smith certainly pushes the boat out a little further with her latest novel, disregarding most aspects of conventional structure and form. I have to admit, at first I was unsure; it took me a while to get used to the colloquial-stream-of-consciousness style of narrative, but after half a dozen chapters or so, I realised that this slightly risky approach had in fact earned Smith the perfectly crafted atmosphere of her novel.
‘Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet Balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.
I am the sole
I am the sole author
Pencil leaves no mark on mark on magazine pages.’

Don’t you feel like you’re walking through the estates of Willesden already? Exactly. The poetry-like stance of the writing reflects on the mind-sets of this community: they do not care for well-structured sentences and accurate grammar. Smith writes as they think. It may be chaotic and confused, but that’s the reality of their lives. The removal of speech marks is just another example. It seems a more accurate depiction of conversation, and allows Smith complete freedom in the sense that there are no grammatical barriers or hindrances. Throughout the novel and its five separately titled sections, Smith switches her narrative structuring, from prose, to listing, to visual poetry and even includes a passage of instant messaging. Though some of these insertions are a little confusing (see the extract below), the majority are highly effective and added a real fourth dimension to the plot and characters.

In fact, it is the third section host, written as one long numbered list, in which the novel really begins to propel forwards. Up until this point, although I had found the book interesting, I hadn’t yet been hooked in. Smith recounts the entirety of Leah and Keisha’s friendship in a list of snippets, set out as a list from one to 185. These snippets, some pages long and some only a couple of lines, are grouped as thoughts, anecdotes which follow the human patterns of memory. The majority of the memories, as they come across, consist of the tiny details of life that so often seem insignificant, but in reality are the crucial moments of personal and relational developments, which shape the direction of our future.

The ending of the novel is fairly ambiguous; when I first finished I was left feeling rather empty and unable to tie the loose ends together in order to distinguish the final message and meaning of the novel (typical Literature student, eh?). But after re-reading the ending and taking particular note of ‘Natalie dialled it. It was Keisha who did the talking’, I decided that the details of what really happened were less important than Smith’s exploration of character - and consequently human - development and growth in life, love and friendship.

Although NW didn’t quite have the power to knock On Beauty off the top spot for me, I did enjoy my adventure through Willesden, and can’t wait to see what challenges Smith takes on next! So whether you’re interested in experiencing Smith’s innovative narrative style, or you’re simply after a good read, I would definitely give NW a go!  



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