Zadie Smith: Fierce, angry, surprising
I must declare my position on Zadie Smith. I thought On Beauty was magnificent. It ranks among the contemporary novels that I most wish I had written; it has never taken its place in my rigorously alphabetised fiction shelves because it lives, along with only a dozen or so others, in permanent circulation on my bedside table. And what I wanted next from Smith — like, I imagine, many of her admirers — was that elusive ideal: more of the same, yet different. It is as unreasonable a demand as the wish for one's children to stay small; writers must grow and evolve and we, their readers, must allow them to. Nonetheless, this book may come as a surprise to those who have been waiting for it.
For it has been seven years, during which Smith has become a tenured professor at NYU. Her fourth novel, NW, marks a substantial and deliberate shift in her fiction. If E.M. Forster stood behind On Beauty like a benevolent Edwardian father, NW has had the volatile, modernist mothering of Virginia Woolf, and the resulting prose is restless and nervy, a narrative as disjointed as the lives it describes. Leah, Keisha, Felix and Nathan were raised in Caldwell, a fictional north London council estate, and each is battling different demons, struggling to make a life beyond the tower blocks of their childhood. Set predominantly over the high summer weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival, it is a portrait of a city. It's a fierce, angry novel. It is not what I expected. But it's very good.
Leah Hanwell is still living within sight of Caldwell, working to distribute charity funds in a dismal office where "the nation's bad bets morph into a semblance of the collective good: after-school play groups, translation services, garden clearance for the elderly, quilting for prisoners". Her husband Michel is from Marseilles, a hairdresser who spends his evenings online trading with her modest inheritance in a desperate attempt to alter their circumstances:
We're all just trying to take that next, that next, next, step. Climbing that ladder. Brent Housing Partnership. I don't want to have this written on the front of a place where I am living. I walk past it and I feel like oof — it's humiliating to me . . . this tree is not my tree! We scattered your father round this tree we don't own even.