Zadie Smith, NW

January 24th, 2013 § 0 comments

‘A bit of green is very powerful, Felix. Very powerful. ‘Specially in England. Even us Londoners born and bred, we need it, we go up to the Heath, don’t we, we crave it. Even our little park here is important. Bit of green. In some melodious plot/Of beechen green, and shadows numberless … Name that verse! “Ode to a Nightingale”! Very famous poem, that. Keats. Londoner he was, you see. But why should you know it! Who would have taught it to you? You got your music, haven’t you, your hip hop, and your rap – what’s the difference between those two? I’ve never been sure. I have to say I can’t understand the bling bling business at all, Felix – seems very backwards to me, all that focus on money. Maybe it’s a symbol for something else – I can’t tell. I’ve got my verses, at least. But I had to learn them myself! In those days, you failed the eleven plus and that was it – on your bike. That’s how it used to be. What education I’ve got I had to get myself. I grew up angry about it. But that’s how it used to be in England for our sort of people. It’s the same thing now with a different name. You should be angry about it, too, Felix, you should!’

As a critic, when you hear The London Novel, you tend to think “Dear Lord, not Martin Amis again”, followed by a brief feeling of relief on learning it is not in fact a new Martin Amis novel (unless it is, in which case, refer to Inferno, Dante Alighieri, Canto III).  Regardless of authorial intent, it has become a genre of its own, and we call all probably name a few, perhaps even offer a favourite (mine personally is Sinclair’s Downriver). NW, Zadie Smith’s fourth novel and her best since her debut, White Teeth, is a London Novel.  Set around the North West area of London, in a deprived community populated mostly by second and third generation English descended from immigrants, Smith constructs an intertwining narrative from three characters; Leah, her best friend since childhood Natalie (formerly Keisha), and a young man unknown to both of them, Felix. Despite the very different paths that Leah and Natalie’s lives take, they both find themselves trapped by the same unhappiness.

For Leah, that unhappiness stems from the fact that she finds herself trapped in a life that she never wanted. Still living in NW, she is happily married to Michel, a French-Algerian immigrant determined to improve his lot in life, but she finds herself stuck in place. The couple are trying for a child, but unknown to Michel, Leah doesn’t want one, going to whatever measures are necessary to ensure that she doesn’t conceive. She also lacks the callousness of the others in the novel, which leads to her falling for the sob story con of Shar, a local drug addict and prostitute pimped by a man the pair used to go to school with, Nathan Boggle. The tragic conclusion of that episode only adds to her depression.

Natalie, on the other hand, has made it out of NW, becoming a successful barrister and marrying a wealthy banker, half African half Italian Frank. She lives in the world of obscene Christmas bonuses, dinner parties, and organic food. But despite her commercial success and her husband and children, she is profoundly unhappy. Throughout her life, as Leah was always a lot more outgoing than her, while she was focused on success, she has always worried that she was somehow empty, as if she had no real personality or self. She becomes obsessed with internet hookups and seedy sexual encounters as if they can somehow fill the void within her, but they only ever seem to peter out disappointingly. Having left NW behind in becoming Natalie, yet never really belonging to the world of money in which she finds herself because she wasn’t born into it, she is trapped between two different Londons, forced to be two different incomplete people.

At one point in the novel, Smith quotes Nietzsche out of context, “Our pre-eminence: we live in the age of comparison“; the verification that permeates NW is the verification of our happiness, our status and wealth, of our worth as human beings, as the validity of our misery.  She writes, of Natalie and her husband,

Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison. Were they any unhappier than Imran and Ameeta? Those people over there? You?

Leah compares Nathan Boggle to the sweet boy they knew in their childhood and wonders how he could have become a violent, drug addicted pimp. She compares herself to those less fortunate and NW and wonders why she and Natalie are better off. Natalie tells her they deserve it, that they worked harder, but she is only fooling herself; for the most part it is dumb luck. The third character, Felix is the proof of that. He has got his life together, is hard working and has a plan, but his life is cut short by a childish act of machismo. It is hard to accept that he did not make it because he did not work hard enough. And what validity does the misery that Leah and Natalie feel have when compared to that of those who loved Felix? People raised in deprived areas generally have worse lives than those who aren’t, it is a vicious cycle, and no matter how hard Leah, Natalie or Felix try, in the end they are always pulled back down into NW.

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