Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Sept/Oct/Nov 2012
Pity; they used to be such nice girls. Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake grew up together in a grim housing estate in North West London. They acquired university degrees, good jobs, political convictions, pretty husbands. And they’re miserable. Now in their mid-thirties, they’re pickling in bile and coming apart. Leah has become fixated on a local woman who bilked her out of thirty pounds. She’s secretly taking birth-control pills, scuttling her husband’s plans to start a family. Keisha, who’s gotten posh and changed her name to Natalie, is spending a bit too much time on a website catering to people with specialized sexual interests (specifically, black females aged eighteen to thirty-five). They’re not so nice anymore. They’ve become the kind of women who are “on a war footing, constantly, even at brunch.” They hate their friends. They hate their mothers. They believe “happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.” They believe that friendships between women are rooted in “ruthless comparison” and that “marriage [is] the art of invidious comparison.” They sing songs in the key of contempt.
Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, is at once a subtle investigation into the intersections of race and class, and a kind of detective story—what’s eating these two? What’s turned those plucky pals into women so slack they can’t even revolt properly? They’re girls gone mild, quietly rattling their cages, contemplating insurrection and going online instead. They can’t even find harbor in each other. It’s Smith’s bleakest book yet, telluric and about as nihilistic as this sunny writer can get. NW is more restrained and emotional than the kinetic White Teeth and The Autograph Man, and it achieves its control without the scaffolding of On Beauty, Smith’s retelling of Howards End set at an American university. Instead of the riffs and jokes, the hectic camera angles, the busyness (tics the critic James Wood once derided as “hysterical realism”), she relies, in NW, on long shots and close-ups. She fades in and out of scenes slowly, particularly a recurring scene of a man and woman in bed. She lets the book breathe. Instead of the usual mushrooming subplots, NW sticks to the two women, Keisha and Leah, whose accounts flank a third, the story of a young man named Felix. Sweet, simple Felix, the book’s sacrifice. His death, like the suicide of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, is a death of his time and town, a memento mori that forces the women into a crisis. The three stories intersect during Carnival. Smith guides Leah and Natalie’s narrative, which takes them from childhood deep into the intrigues of their secret lives, all while Felix goes about his unremarkable, final day. He checks up on his dad. Buys a secondhand car. Sleeps with an ex-girlfriend. Hops on the tube.
Smith’s fiction has never been this deadly, direct, or economical—and she’s still having more fun on the page than Wood would think is strictly necessary. NW is embroidered with eccentric flourishes—a (baffling) prose poem here, a section in numbered sequences there. And the staccato street scenes let her strut. There’s a bit of Frank O’Hara and a lot of Mrs. Dalloway in these descriptions. Smith takes Virginia Woolf’s delight in “life; London; this moment of June,” the city’s “swing, tramp, and trudge,” and remixes it with the “sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab.” There’s a distinctly modernist cast to NW, in the parsing of the march of the mind, how it speaks to itself in clipped images and directives. Here’s how the book begins: “Shriveled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burned paunch rests on the railing.” It’s a miracle of mood: Hear the jeer in the bursting b’s of blossom and bitter and birds and burned. Leah, sulking in her garden, is spitting these words. Like an overture, the opening hints at all the themes to come—unwelcome, forsaken fertility (those withered blossoms and apples), the creep of time (the birds)—but the star of the sentence is that little paunch and all that it connotes of unseemly and oddly poignant (it’s in the sunburned) flesh-bound femaleness. For it’s in this realm that the trouble began, set off by a flurry of e-mails from their friends. Continue reading