From Maida Vale in our last post, Lillabullero moves – in fiction – a couple of stations further north up the Bakerloo Line.
I didn’t find Zadie Smith‘s NW (Hamish Hamilton, 2012) an easy novel to get into but I’m glad I kept at it. It wasn’t until I re-read the first section again to try to get a couple of things straight in my mind that the powerful logic of its opening chapters’ relative formlessness – it’s all over the place – really impressed and made terrible sense. Because that is where Leah is at. It’s a fine sustained piece of writing that complements and resonates with the other two very different narratives that are the core of this beautifully and vividly written, intelligently constructed novel.
For Rufus we get an account of an all too significant day in the life of an engaging young man who is turning his life around. His is a tale could easily bear a novel of its own, from his dad’s being in a semi-legendary ’60s community, through his varied employment pursuits, a brush with dependency and involvement in a privileged Soho scene. Keisha’s tale – she opts for the name Natalie with her eyes on a successful career – is brilliantly laid out in an unfolding sequence of numbered sections.
All three were raised on the Caldwell council estate, the children of immigrants, and went to the same school in the unfashionable reaches of the North West postal districts in the London Borough of Brent at pretty much the same time in the early ’80s. Leah, Irish, and Natalie, from an African Caribbean church background, are best friends who made it to university, Leah’s choice of a Philosophy degree probably not the wisest while for Natalie, Law is her great opportunity. They still see each other frequently but their ambitions and life choices have taken them to very different places. Leah sums it up as, “Overnight everyone has grown up. while she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.” The different perspective we get from each’s perception of where the other is at is fascinating. Two other of their damaged peers – failed footballer Nathan and beggar Shar – appear at various crucial points in the unfolding traumas. When all these strands are brought together it’s enervatingly done in a refreshingly corn-free way – how I was fearing that court room scene! (Oh me of little faith.)
This is a fine novel, committed and insightful, compassionate yet unblinkered. To tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve really done it justice; I’ve not even mentioned their men. To say NW could function as mentor for urban youth in the estates is not in any way to diminish its value as fiction of the highest order. There are recognisable social types portrayed here for sure, but they all live and breathe in their own right.
NW covers a lot of ground, not least the problem of men and women finding meaning and a decent existence in a modern city, of charting a personal survival route through its pitfalls, frustrations and dangers. It’s also a novel about friendship, relationships and social mobility – the dilemma of not forgetting where you come from or, unconnected, forgetting too much – and senselessness random acts. There’s a scene of incredible power when an old woman confronts a youth smoking in a children’s playground, the tension and potential toxicity of the situation almost unbearable. “This is the story of a city” trumpets the fly-leaf; it’s not everyone’s by a long chalk, but it’s certainly one of them.
The climax of NW is an exhilarating and terrifying trek from Willesden and Kilburn up into West Hampstead and across the top of Hampstead Heath to Highgate and beyond, to Hornsey Lane’s ‘Suicide Bridge’, an epic journey through the social geography of London. In heavy rain, for what it’s worth.
It gives nothing away – save to show what a subtle hand is at work here – if I quote the very last words (though I’ll hide the speaker’s identity just in case):
‘I’ve got something to tell you, said X Y, disguising her voice with her voice.’
There’s a passage well on in Natalie’s story that crystallizes for me what is important in living this life, and also what makes a novel, any novel, really work when it achieves the same, and hits right on the nail’s head why I love Andrei Makine‘s work (celebrated elsewhere on Lillabullero) so much:
‘The difference between a moment and an instant.’ She couldn’t remember very much about the philosophical significance of this distinction other than that her good friend Leah Hanwell had once tried to understand it, and to make Natalie Blake understand it, a long time ago, when they were students and far smarter than they were today. [ … a URL is quoted that I can’t make work but names Kierkegaard …] Such a moment has a special character. It is brief and temporal indeed, like every moment; it is transient, as all moments are; it is past, like every moment in the next moment. And yet it is decisive, and filled with the eternal.
There are such moments at play here, delivered with poignancy, hope and dismay, sometimes illuminated with shafts of humour. The novel moved me. And as if that wasn’t enough, NW also contains one of the great contributions to the annals of The Kinks in Literature also celebrated here on Lillabullero; not the first time Zadie Smith has so graced us.
An afterthought: do we know what happened to Natalie’s first earnest young man? Are we told, or is it just me being a lazy reader?