After a seven year wait we have another novel from Zadie Smith. Well, you might have been waiting for it but this is the first book of hers that I've read so if you want to know if it's as good as that other one of hers that you liked then you'll need to check with someone else. That time gap though, and the title of the novel (and the fact that reviews have been strictly embargoed until publication) always meant that this was going to be something of an event publication, a shoo-in perhaps for another Booker nomination (the judges did not agree I'm afraid), and what appeared to be another state of the nation novel (or state of the city) to follow on from John Lanchester's Capital. The first thing to say is that it doesn't read like that kind of book at all. Smith does capture an area of London and a small sample of its people but I'm not sure she has much interest in trying to incorporate a grand message about living in London near the beginning of the 21st century (or if there is I'm not sure what it is), it all feels far more personal than that. By focussing on four main characters who all share a starting point in life, the fictional housing estate of Caldwell, but whose trajectories since have been very different, and then allowing their paths to cross naturally she does make sociological points, political and racial ones too, but it is in personal relationships and the characters of the two women in particular that she finds most success.
NW is of course North West London and we are around and about Willesden and the Kilburn High Road. The novel opens (and you can read it yourself here) with a section entitled Visitation. First we have a literary tracking shot to establish the locale and then a face to face confrontation as Leah opens the door to a hysterical woman begging for help. This is Shar, who still lives on the Caldwell estate, visible across the way from where Leah now lives ('From there to here, a journey longer than it looks'). Shar needs help, or rather money, and it is only after this sometimes frantic exchange, which manages to incorporate some reminiscences about their shared schooling at Brayton, and Shar's departure that Leah begins to suspect that she has been victim to some rather elaborate begging or a well-scripted mugging with no violence. This section is written with fragmented sentences, thoughts jagging about, snatches of music, typographical experiments (see below), memories inserted in special chapters numbered 37 (a number given mystical significance by a friend of Leah's); it is a stylistic tour de force which will probably attract as many readers as it repels.
Then comes a section called Guest in which we meet Felix. This was the least memorable section for me, Felix never really engaged me as a character, and it made little impression on me beyond the brutality and inherent danger in the engaging with other people in London. This will become an important theme of the book however, and I'll come back to communication later, so I'm wary of discounting this section entirely but, as I say, it didn't really contribute much for me apart from a neat way of viewing the way different London boroughs segregate themselves -
He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not 'Oxford Circus' but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. 'Wimbledon' was the countryside, 'Pimlico' pure science fiction.
Next comes Host which makes up over a third of the novel, consisting of 185 short, numbered and named chapters, and is the most successful part of the book. Maybe I've just got the taste for these short chapters but it is such an effective way of capturing character, covering time and including a whole life in a short number of pages. Here the focus is Leah's childhood friend Natalie, although when they were growing up she was Keisha (just as Zadie herself used to be Sadie). Natalie is the most interesting character in the novel, the most developed (do I dare make any connection between her and the author?) and also the most obvious to follow in terms of someone making an escape from humble beginnings on the Caldwell estate.
She is probably as surprised to have come out of Brayton as it is surprised to have spawned her. Nat, the girl done good from their thousand-kid madhouse; done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from. To live like this you would have to forget everything that came before. How else could you manage?
Natalie's story is one of re-invention, perhaps that is the only way a woman from a council estate can make a career in law, a woman of colour. At one stage she receives some advice from another woman like her, a QC.
'The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.' She passed a hand over her neat fram from her head to her lap, like a scanner. 'This is never neutral.'
The collection of short chapters take in her childhood, her friendship with Leah, her upward trajectory, her success and its burdens, marriage, children, and always this lurking sense that none of it feels as good as it should do, the girl done good doesn't feel nearly as good as she should.
Walking down the Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. 'Slip into' was an imprecise thought...Listening was not enough. Natalie Blake wanted to know people. To be intimately involved with them.
Another form of reinvention will allow her to transgress, to go against everything that her life appears to amount to and in a novel about (mis)communication it is just one example of how a flawed attempt can have dire consequences.
The observant amongst you will have noticed that so far I have only mentioned three of the four main characters. The final member of the cast is Nathan Bogle, spoken of in disapproving tones in the early parts of the book before making his main appearance in a section entitled Crossing. Bogle is a shadowy figure, a supposed failure, exactly what we might expect to come forth from a housing estate and yet he actually seems most at ease in the terrain of the novel, a man content with his lot, his status. This is one of the more alarming conclusions to draw from the book, that the environment is so hostile and set, that it is those who attempt to lift themselves above it who will inevitably fail or even fall victim to it.
London has long been characterised as city in which so many people live and yet so few of whom actually connect. I have experienced that first hand and know also the fear of engaging the wrong person in conversation or debate. In one memorable scene in a children's playground a group of women confront a young lad who is smoking. It very quickly escalates with talk of disrespect and where people come from before calming down again but it is a perfect example of the simple engagement that can quickly become aggressive and even fatal. Smith captures these exchanges brilliantly and in fact the dialogue throughout the book is diverse, idiomatic and convincing. With such variety in the writing style for each section of this novel it isn't a surprise that my first experience of reading her fiction wasn't a complete success (and I have heard others say that she might be a better essayist) but those sections that I did like, I really liked. Smith has been quoted as saying that she finds all aspects of writing a novel tough apart from the dialogue. This I find fascinating because part of me wonders what she might produce if she turned her hand to writing a play. I doubt it will ever happen but if you're reading Zadie (!) then give it a little thought. And think about a nice part for a man approaching his late thirties with laughter lines and maybe the odd grey hair whilst you're at it.