The good news is I do think NW will stand up to rereading. The bad news is I am not sure it does become more than a sum of its parts. Yes, you can tell me that is the point. I think we all understand it is a novel in fragments, about a fragmented city, a fragmented past.
Keisha/Natalie represents the universal cliché: you can never go home again. Although, of course, she does go home. The end of the novel is where everything and everyone falls apart, to the point that Natalie finds Leah slumped in her hammock, in an existential torpor. Sorry if I sound unsympathetic. I guess – at this point – I was feeling a little bit frayed and unfocused myself. The psychological meltdown of “KeishaNW” during the finale irked me. Not because it was disturbing, but because between the lines I sensed a moral viewpoint equating poverty with authenticity. This does not belong to Zadie Smith per se. It’s quite a common cliché. Is it true? We give cliches a hard time, yet they only become well worn because they strike a chord.
There’s a velveteen rabbit message at the core of the Keisha/Natalie narrative, which is, of course, about what it means to be real. To be human is to risk, to suffer and to love. The parting sentence of NW casts doubt in the reader’s mind about which “self” is more truly authentic: uptown girl Natalie or the salacious Keisha. “’I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice.”
I can’t help but feel the Velveteen Rabbit had an easier ride. Also, the Velveteen Rabbit didn’t need to learn self-love; he just needed someone else to love him to be real. Smith gives her female characters the hardest time: both Keisha/Natalie and Leah crackle with self-hatred and self-doubt. Nathan and Felix, the murderer and his victim, are at least let off the emotional hook.
NW closes and old friends are reunited. Keisha/Natalie and Leah bond from the depths of their own self-inflicted depravity. Life’s heady mysteries remain aptly unsolved. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a literary novel.
Smith remains the consummate micro-manager. I bet she’s the kind of woman who doesn’t lose her keys often. Despite my reservations, I’m glad I’ve read NW, and I will now go back and read On Beauty, a novel that when it was released just annoyed me due to its genteel title and her cloying author photograph. Okay, maybe her author photo isn’t cloying and I’ve always just been jealous of her prodigal talent.
And she is talented. NW is much more than a bold failure, yet I felt lurking dissatisfaction with the loose ends, the way the ominous use of the number 37 came to a seemingly inconsequential full stop. Also, Zadie, I am 37 and I can assure you it’s not that bad. The problem isn’t that I struggle to deal with novels that don’t contain Da Vinci Code, tightly wound plots. Quite the opposite.
Perhaps I’m being an ungenerous host, but NW felt a bit like a storm in a tea cup.