This book is in bookstores now. It was also the Listener Book Club book for September.
NW starts out like an Ian McEwan novel – something like Saturday. We’re in the city – the kind that doesn’t so much bustle with vim and vigour but the one where there are just so many, many people living side by side, where strangers occasionally bump up against each other disturbing the trajectory.
Leah Hanwell is interrupted by a knock at her door; an interruption by a stranger where a small incident takes place, which later (once she’s reported it to friends and family) continues to build in her own consciousness to overtake everything she does – her actions, thoughts and life.
Just as we’re hooked into ‘visitation’ (pages 1-84) it’s over and we’re off elsewhere. But with the perfect set-up for a book filled with neurosis and social angst where people with issues like drug addiction and homelessness live alongside those whose biggest issue is they’re bored with their perfect life.
Like many books I read, I started NW on the train home from work. The problem with this approach is that the other commuters often won’t shut the hell up about their moulting dogs and cats whiskers and horse jumps long enough to properly get into a new novel. I felt distracted, pulled from the narrative into my own thoughts, the conversations of others; led down paths of thought into nowhere lands. But that’s the point.
NW is often built mainly in fragments. It’s the story of the lives of Leah Hanwell and Keisha (later renamed Natalie) Blake, which at times reads like an every story of people my age. Sure, I didn’t grow up in a rough area of a big city and I’ve never listed myself as available for threesomes on Craig’s List but I have strived to achieve something in life, do the right thing, get on a good path, been bored, wondered what it’s all about… doesn’t everyone? Or everyone my age with first world problems.
I have the good fortune to be about the same age as Zadie Smith so at times I’d come across sentences, paragraphs, descriptions that were like secret codes of familiarity for my own life. I don’t think you’ll miss anything by being older or younger, there’s just a certain pleasure in recognising the long-forgotten but familiar actions and occurrences of your past.
“Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.” (Page 40)
“Leah would surely be in her room, clutching his picture, weeping.” (Page 168)
“That night they went to the Swiss Cottage Odeon to see a film about a man dressed as a woman so that he could keep an eye on his children for reasons Keisha found herself too distracted to even begin to comprehend.” (Page 171)
Zadie Smith’s characters’ never-ending search for happiness and contentment coupled with their ongoing neurosis mirrors what I read in my friend’s Facebook feeds, Twitter ponderings and blogs.
Essentially, we’re all just living and trying to get along but it’s just never enough is it? It’s:
- I’m an over achiever but I’m bored
- I feel overwhelmed today but yet feel that I haven’t achieved as much as someone whose blog I read this morning
- I posted something online but nobody’s looking at me/it
- I feel guilty because I enjoyed myself
- That person’s blog makes their life look perfect and easy – why isn’t mine like that?
And this is what I like. I really enjoy stream of consciousness writing and descriptive text. I love stories that focus on the minutia of character’s lives without clearly having an overarching plot – or be obviously heading to a satisfying crescendo.
I like that NW is about the everyday; the things that happen while you’re busy making other plans (it’s a bit of a theme for me this year).
This wasn’t a book that I read at a clipping pace. It’s a novel I entirely forgot to think about when I wasn’t reading it but it was always easy to dip back in and out of and overall was a piece of writing that was adept and that provoked thought and consideration.
It’s also that rare thing for me – a book that I’d consider reading again just so I could fit more pieces of the puzzle together.
Reviewed by Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ
by Zadie Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd