Friday, August 02, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith

I prefer the British cover to the American.
Before leaving for a recent trip to England and France, I pulled this book from the glorious pile thinking "I should read a real London book" since I was going to be there. It has been years since I'd read Zadie Smith though I loved her debut, White Teeth, and she often turns up in the pages of the New Yorker so I don't feel as though I'd completely lost touch with her. In fact, pieces of this book appeared there as short stories. What I had forgotten is just how tremendously talented a writer she is and NW brought that back to me in spades. 

Told through the eyes of four characters who grew up or live on a council estate in Willesden, a mostly lower-class area of northwest London, we are privy to the past and present and how life changes you. 

The bulk of the book, some told in flashback and some in the here-and-now, is from the perspective of childhood friends Leah and Keisha. They grow up together, they grow apart, they stop growing and yet they still know each other better than anyone else. Leah is, by everyone else's account, stuck in a rut but I just think she doesn't wish to move forward. Keisha is a complete success but can't seem to find much meaning to it all or much happiness. Left alone, they'd likely stay put and slog through, especially Leah. Keisha, however, changes course and causes what may be her downfall or her chance at a new life. The other characters, the tragic Felix and the criminal Nathan make important appearances and round out the book. (re-reading this graph, it sounds like mediocre jacket copy but I don't wish to give away too much)

Smith succeeds in so many ways in the telling. She utilizes a style early in the book that is a melange of dialogue, stream of consciousness, inner voice, and outer influences that at first is hard to follow. I kept waiting for a rhythm that never came but I think that is the author's intent, as though it's a fizzy drink that's she's shaking.  Later, she uses short numbered passages to move the book briskly forward. It is without a doubt an ambitious novel but she manages to make the varied styles work and does so without it looking like she's showing off. 

Ultimately, sense of place is what the Keisha and Leila are clinging to even though they are both attracted and repelled by where they grew up. There is great longing for home and yet a knowledge that getting out isn't the end of the story. 

I've lived where I do more than half my life and longer here than where I grew up but if someone asks "Where's home?", far more often than not I'll answer "western Pennsylvania". (However, when visiting western PA and it's time "go home", I mean Cincy.) Now that I have no family left there, I visit less and less often but I still consider it home. A town I always knew I'd leave, a town I don't always recognize when I return, is still in my bones.  Sometimes my dreams still take place there.

You don't forget the bad stuff--the provincialism and small-mindedness, the slights and hurts inflicted by friends and family and fuckheads whom you've mostly forgotten. The scars almost make you wistful for a time when you were smaller and safer and secure when in fact you may have been none of these. Home is where you're not and Zadie Smith completely captures that feeling. 

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