Sometimes when I’m looking for a bar or a gallery or some other place in one of Melbourne’s impossible back alleyways, I open up google maps, and once it’s puzzled through the coordinates and found the location I’ll zoom and zoom in upon that orange mark. At some point in its descent, the map becomes, seemingly of its own accord, real life images of the street. Closer and closer I scroll, finding sometimes that it has captured the blurred faces of people hurriedly walking, and I wonder what they must think of being caught there, like the twenty-first century version of a bug in amber.
In her new novel NW, Zadie Smith has similarly zoomed in upon the streets of a city. The title itself is a coordinate, orienting you in this frenetic, multienthic part of London, the North-West areas of the capital. Smith has plunged down through the map further, beyond blurry pixilated faces, into their lives, into their languages. Moving down into the fray, she alights upon four characters: Leah, Felix, Natalie and Nathan.
Fragmented, dizzying, jangling your nerves and sometimes frustrating, this is not the sort of book you lay back with one sunny day to sink easily into the comfort of narrative. It is a cacophony of voices, weird slang, hood-speak, splintered with ‘innit’s and ‘is it’s, high and low dialogue. We’re always thrown slightly off balance by a new change in tone, in style, in narrator, a new narrative trick. ‘She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin… is only a rhythm in a sentence,’ and the rhythms and cadences in her sentences are beautiful — ‘the feeling of feeling absurd.’
It is often stream-of-consciousness, and you can certainly feel the link to modernists such as Joyce or Eliot or Woolf.
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside.
But she plays her postmodernist tricks with typesetting too, tricks that can sometimes lurch into the gimmicky – a poem about an apple tree in the shape of an apple tree, a description of teeth reproduced like a mouth, changed font when rendering internet conversations.
Yet her dialogue is perfect, real, recognisable. This is a London novel, distinctly London. And yet the overall impression I had was one of familiarity – I cannot count the amount of times I underlined something that felt true, lived, that struck me with the feeling of recognition and understanding. The snatches of conversation: ‘Can I give you a tip? Start on the third episode of series two’ – people who come together for a dinner party to complain about the evils of technology with ‘their phones laid next to their dinner plates.’
Though Smith has zoomed down upon four characters, NW is more convincingly a diptych than a quadriptych. The strongest portraits are those of the two females – Leah and Natalie (formerly Keisha) and their relation to one another. A friendship formed in childhood through a ‘dramatic event’ that is strained by their lives as adults and the responsibilities that weigh upon them. When Natalie has a baby ‘Leah came round with a soft white rabbit, and looked at Natalie as if she had passed over a chasm into another land.’ It is a brilliant portrait of female friendship – two women who feel like frauds, who can’t understand how the other can appear so happy and together.
The two male characters – Felix and Nathan – are not drawn as fully, and defined by their relations to the female characters. At one point Natalie notes that in the café they are sitting at, they are ‘providing a service for the rest of the people…simply by being here. They were the “local vibrancy” to which the estate agents referred.’ There is a sense in which the two male characters are the ones to provide the local vibrancy in this book, they are certainly the most obviously ‘racial’ in their language.
Indeed, in Felix’s section, some of the most memorable characters are the bit-part players, such as Tom – wealthy, privileged, white; so white you can almost feel it seeping from the page – who is trying to sell his Mercedes. As Smith writes of Tom’s attempts to converse with Felix: ‘Like a man who has been thrown a lot of strange-shaped objects, he clung to the one that struck him first.’ And Annie, the destructive, drug addled ballet dancer who could ‘fall and fall and fall and still never quite hit the ground.’
Though the title is NW, it may well have been ‘Crossing’, the name of one of the work’s five sections. This is what the story is really about. What happens when we cross over boundaries of class, place and ethnicity, into another life, or when someone crosses over their social borders into ours. That there really is no such thing as home, or perhaps that home is the only place, and much as we try to escape it, we’ll always be there. This not a perfect novel, there are moments when she stumbles, and yet you know you’re in the presence of brilliance. Smith has captured modern life – the cadences, the idiosyncracies, the nuances of language, our petty concerns and trivialities – in a way that few could.
— Zadie Smith’s NW is available now through Hamish Hamilton. RRP 29.99