Pass the compass: Zadie Smith’s NW

Expectations were always going to be high for a new novel from Zadie Smith. The wunderkind author of White Teeth, published when she was a jaw-dropping 24 years old and penned while she was still a student at Cambridge University, Smith has blazed a trail in contemporary fiction, and. At 36 she remains significant not simply for the speed of her journey to the top, but for the pearl-bright lustre of her shapeliest work.

At her best, Smith – like her hero Martin Amis – is capable of delivering acid-bright contemplations that delineate life with an almost uncomfortable clarity, like studio lights shone onto a blinking subject where once there was only a dim, swinging bulb overhead.

In many respects, it’s surprising to note quite how long Smith has been away from the publishing fray. It’s seven years since she published On Beauty, a homage to the work of EM Forster that was smart and accomplished, but suffered from a stultifying narrative inertia.

In the novel, Smith was content to have her fictional family, the Boston-based Belsey clan with liberal academic Howard Belsey at the helm, hang about the place for hundreds of pages. Scene after scene unfolded in crisp, warm, tone-perfect prose, but while Smith’s characters were promising, Smith refused to give them enough to do.

Reading the work, you might well assume, in the stark words of one of her critics, that Smith doesn’t give “a fig” for plot. It’s actually a little more complicated than that. Smith’s narrative fug is an unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable, consequence of her approach to writing novels.

In her own words, Smith is a “micro manager”, a writer who does not plan her novels, but simply begins at the first sentence and inches her way through to the last, keeping her gaze averted from the bigger picture and spending years (two in the case of On Beauty) obsessively reworking her first 20 pages, in the belief that in those lines she will find the whole universe of her novel.

“It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels,” Smith writes in her collection of essays, Changing My Mind.

Some of the best literary novels have come from this approach – John McGahern’s Amongst Women uses this technique, and who could forget the wonder of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the no-planning approach is a tightrope walk for even the most confident novelist, and sometimes it leads to situations where, to use a metaphor, the furniture inside the house is wonderful, but the house itself has no front door and a chimney where the window should be.

All of which brings us to NW, a book which is not a disaster – Smith is far too gifted a writer for that – but which occasionally strikes you as a waste of Smith’s considerable gifts. The action centres on a group of 30-something characters who grew up in Caldwell, a Willesden council estate in north-west London, and who are all scrabbling for footholds in a deeply class-divided existence.

Leah Hanley is a brooding, inert Londoner who has married black, handsome hairdresser Michel. He wants them to have children, but she is secretly aborting her pregnancies. (“She doesn’t want to ‘go forward’. She wants just him and her forever.”) Keisha Blake is her friend who has grown up to become a lawyer, and now invites them to posh dinner parties Leah can barely endure. Felix Cooper, 32, is a drifter ostensibly in search of self-betterment, but faced with his own rebelling instincts.

Smith chronicles their lives in relentless, stream-of-consciousness-type verisimilitude, piling on detail that serves to exhaust as often as engage. Of Leah, Smith writes, “She sits on a chair in the open doorway between kitchen and garden. Toes in the grass. The skies are empty and silent. Outrage travels from next door’s talk radio: it’s taken me fifty-two hours to get back from Singapore! A new old lesson about time. Broccoli comes from Kenya. Blood must be transported. Soldiers need supplies. Much of the better part of NW went on holiday for Easter, with their little darlings. Maybe they will never return, a thought to float away on.”

Of the old gang, Keisha – who renames herself Natalie – is the most sympathetic, heartfelt presence in the book. She has ambition, but fears she lacks personality, and that in becoming successful, she has become bland. Her adult world has been constructed painstakingly, but she is losing her faith in the virtues of the middle-class.

Class itself is a continually recurring theme in NW: Leah and Keisha continually compare themselves to others – what “our people do” is an oft-referenced subject and their friendship collapses as their paths in life divide. While Smith is too smart to bash the reader over the head with didactic messages, the novel tries a little too hard to be ‘important’ and not hard enough to entertain. Reading NW sometimes felt like a deeply worthy chore, despite Smith’s whip-smart observations and sharply nuanced dialogue.

Still, there are moments – particularly when Smith dwells on the younger versions of Keisha and Leah – when the prose crackles with energy, and you can see the old Smith peeping through, the one who had less to prove.

In her essay Two Directions for the Novel, Smith writes: “All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us down this road the true future of the Novel lies.”

On the evidence of NW, Smith’s ‘road’ has begun to look like more of a cul-de-sac, serving to trap the author and snap her forward momentum, rather than carry her through to the bright lights of the open motorway.

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