Updated: December 3, 2012 11:07 IST

A skilled literary dance

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N- W; Zadie Smith. Photo: Special Arrangement
N- W; Zadie Smith. Photo: Special Arrangement

Following the lives of four people trying to run away from their pasts.

It’s hard to detect the nuances of coordinates in a foreign city or to understand what they stand for in an insider’s shorthand. Delhiites say “Punjabi Bagh” or people in Chennai say “Mylapore” and mean an entire world view by it.

To enjoy Zadie Smith’s NW, the reader must understand its geography, especially since Smith supplies no other context. We are left to infer time period through references to the volcano ash cloud or the cell phones and Macs lying around on people’s desks. We are left to infer the state of the economy and whether the lifestyle and principles of these characters are in keeping with the zeitgeist. All we have for context are specific streets, walks, buildings and views. Otherwise, Smith keeps the reader’s eye focused deliberately on the figures in the foreground.

Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake are friends who grew up in a lower middle class neighbourhood of London. One is white and one is black, and for much of their lives they have hovered on the blurred edges that divide classes within the middle class. NW seems to be a frontier in some ways, but it also seems to wind around the ankles of all these people, so that they can’t run very far.

Smith introduces new threads in each section, leaving some characters behind entirely. We hope they will all connect in the end, but meanwhile we play along. Leah Hanwell is conned out of £30 by Shar, a drug addict. Her husband, her mother, and her friends tell her she has been hopelessly soft, but Leah feels a strange yearning to see that young woman again. They run into each other in the street now and again, but we wait and wait for their last decisive encounter that will make sense of Leah’s feelings.

Meanwhile, a fourth character, Felix, visits his father, who lives awash in clutter in a squat that was once famous for its radical culture. Then he drops in on an old lover, also living in clutter. He leaves her sobbing and ends his evening being mugged. Smith draws highly believable characters throughout and each figure who crosses these streets feels like someone we could follow home and spy on if we wanted. In the Felix section of her novel, her skill is sharpest. These are characters we won’t see again, or at least only tangentially, and yet we care to remember them.

Keisha is the rather smug lawyer and dinner party hostess at the outset and then Smith takes us back through her life. Keisha grew up as the good little black girl, trained to control her behaviour and desires so that she wouldn’t give anyone reason to point fingers. She slogs through college and socially conscious paralegal work but a simple change of sexual focus transforms her; the entrance of a half-Italian, half-African law school classmate who has the mesmerising quality of carelessness. She drops the earnest boyfriend she has been with since her early teens.

Next time we catch up with her, her name is Natalie, she’s a proper lawyer, and she has a lovely house and two pretty children. She feels false at the core, but that may or may not reflect the truth. After all, many high-achieving women feel that they will be “found out” one day. That mystery about Natalie persists.

The other mystery about her is the websites and listings she’s always checking on her laptop. Is she a “dirty girl”, secretly hooking up with two fellows at once or with couples while she plays the perfect parent at home? Have her years of repression broken out in something so mundane? Instead of exploding that revelation like a grenade, Smith plays it the way it would play in real life, as a transgression that becomes more horrifying with time rather than less, has consequences every single morning and doesn’t go away.

Smith performs a skilled literary dance in her novel, with picture poems reminiscent of Vikram Seth, a Joycean stream of consciousness, and a numbered string of narrative snapshots in the style of Margaret Atwood. To the reader, it all comes across like her own authentic voice.

NW; Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, Rs.499.

Keywords: Zadie SmithNWbook review

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