‘And you living back here now?’ ‘My girl lives just there.’ He indicated the supermarket sign with his chin, ‘Felix, man, you properly local. I remember when you was working in there.’
Felix glared over the boy’s head to the empty basktetball cage across the street in which no-one had ever played basketball or ever would.
observations: I was reading this book while travelling on the London underground (appropriately enough, the characters are all travelling around the city all the time), and a young woman said ‘do you mind if I ask you – is this book worth persevering with? I’ve started it, I hate it, should I just give up?’ I was able to say to her: don’t give up, do carry on – the first section is unreadably bad, but then it suddenly gets much much better. It is very, very strange, and I have rarely changed my mind so radically about a novel.
NW means the North West of London, and the book deals with London life over the past 30 years, through the eyes of a group of young people. It gives the impression of being brilliantly authentic: I did NOT find two of Zadie Smith’s previous books authentic in two specific ways – in White Teeth she wrote a lot about a past she did not live through, and didn’t bother even to try to get it right in all kinds of details (I feel she was not helped by her presumed editors of the time.) In On Beauty she wrote about American life in a similarly bizarre way - she was a visiting academic there for a short time, but gave no impression of knowing even the simplest facts of US ways. (I know this is not a popular view to criticize her for this.) But this time – she certainly convinced me.
The first section – nearly 100 pages - is a stream of consciousness and is tricksy, annoying, meaningless. I presume Smith was being fun and experimental, but I hated it. And it’s such a waste of her talents – the next section, following the young man Felix, is told straightforwardly and is absolutely wonderful, so well-done, so completely engrossing. But still – Felix’s story is just dropped in the middle and has only a geographical connection with the rest, I wish the different parts had been linked up better.
Another young man, Nathan, drifts through the novel, but most of the rest deals with Leah, white Irish, and the black Keisha/Natalie: all four characters grew up on the same council estate, Caldwell. (She must have intended the strange coincidence that Leah is called Hanwell, but why?) Leah falls to the side really, and Natalie is the key character for the final section. I found her story fascinating. The whole book (once Leah’s opening section was done) was an engrossing page-turner. After finishing it I have some questions and reservations. I really objected to the line ‘Reader, keep up!’ in the book – particularly as it was two pages away from what I can only guess was a typo – a reference to Natalie as Mrs Blake when ‘Ms Blake’ was clearly intended (Mrs Blake would be Natalie's mother). I seem to be keeping up better than the author and her publishers.
But then, I did love lines like this:
Old Hindus… wear their saris with jumpers and cardigans and thick woolly socks. They look like they have walked to Willesden from Delhi, adding layers of knitwear as they progress northwards.I don’t think it was a perfect book, but I still stand by what I said to the young woman on the Tube platform: well worth reading. But maybe skim the first section?