Zadie Smith Photo by Dominique Nabokov Poster by Triunfo Arciniegas
NW by Zadie Smith: review
Philip Hensher hails Zadie Smith's richly varied new novel that follows four people trying to escape the past.
Zadie Smith: 'You can't write a better book than you are. But this is my favourite by a long, long way.'
Photo: Linda Brownlee
By Philip Hensher
7:00AM BST 03 Sep 2012
It might be any one of a thousand things, but the thing which convinced me of the virtuosity of Zadie Smith’s technique was the word “anyway”. It’s one of those words that an inept novelist will use as characters begin to speak, to indicate casual dialogue. “Anyway, can you go to the shops?” But people don’t really use it like that. Nowadays, they use it at the end of a speech, or to suggest a change of subject. And that’s how it happens in NW. “… is really about integrity of like a, like a, like an idea? Blew me away. Anyway.” This is a book written by someone who really knows how to listen, and who truly understands what people are like, and what they might become. In a hundred years time, when readers want to understand what the English novel was capable of, and what English life truly felt like, they will look at NW, and warm to it.
The novel is set in, and around, one of those mixed London suburbs where deprivation bangs up against wealth. The range is embodied in an old friendship: Natalie (once Keisha) Blake, now a barrister married to a handsome socialite in a grand villa, and Leah Hanwell, doing all right in a council flat with her black French partner Michel. Their friendship goes far back, but when we see them, Leah is irritated by Natalie’s social climb, her dinner parties, her new way of patronising her old friend. Natalie has climbed and climbed; Leah has stayed much where she was.
And there is also the sight of Nathan Bogle; once a beautiful boy at school, obsessively loved by Leah, now a crack-smoking wreck hanging about the bus station. Felix is someone none of them know; he will not meet Leah or Natalie at all, and will say only eight sentences to Nathan. His story, brutally cut short, is one of a struggle to overcome the troubles of the past, to do as well as can be done. His encounters with destructive privilege, and, finally, with Nathan, define his moral stance, his striving to improve.
“There is no such thing as society,” Mrs Thatcher said. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” There is such a thing as society in NW, but it’s the result of millions of individual lives, and the individual’s responsibility to take charge. On the other side to Keisha and Leah, there are the feckless: whether rich, braying Tom – “My father says there’s only two sentences a self-respecting Englishman should accept in this situation” – Trustafarian drug-addict Annie, or the poor, Felix’s disastrous father Lloyd and the crack-smokers who are forever trying to get money out of Leah – “My mum had a heart – a heart attack? Five… pounds.”
At the centre is Natalie and Leah. Natalie, initially so unsympathetic, is returned to her earliest childhood in the third part of the book, and we see her passionate struggle to educate herself, to remove herself from the name Keisha, Kilburn Pentecostal, the respectable black working class. Not everyone she knows succeeds; in a heart-rending sentence, we are told of her boyfriend Rodney, doomed to failure, that “where he had even got the idea of ‘the law’ it was difficult to say. His mother was a dinner lady. His father drove a bus.”
The book is powerfully in favour of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. There is nothing in it a thoughtful Tory could object to, or disagree with. It is angry about injustice, and overwhelmingly interested in the lost talent, the resources lost in an abandoned generation. People like Zadie Smith, or indeed like me, who were educated at comprehensive schools with the aid of free libraries, and got into Oxbridge without much help, can hardly help but feel passionate about the diminishment of all these opportunities.
The novel makes a powerful case. But the mastery of it lies in its felt life, the clarity and density of its observation of how human beings live; how they talk; how they gesture; how they behave to each other, in public and in private. It is intensely funny in its disillusioned way, both laughing with its characters, and, sometimes in angry judgment, at them. It is richly varied, and always unexpected – masterly that Nathan’s final encounter is with Keisha, not, as expected, with Leah who loved him.
In its resigned resting on a tragic chance encounter, and its patient explication of what that chance encounter means, and what it destroys, it goes back to a great novel of the Seventies, William Golding’s Darkness Visible. Like that, the structural division between characters who will never meet enacts a society in deep disruption. At the same time, like all four of Smith's wonderful novels, it relies on what always makes a novel go: a humane love of and interest in men and women, overlooked and yet worth our deepest interest. It is a joyous, optimistic, angry masterpiece, and no better English novel will be published this year, or, probably, next.
* Philip Hensher’s latest novel, Scenes from Early Life, is published by Fourth Estate