From the first sentence – “The fat sun stalls by the phone masts” – it’s obvious that the primary pleasures NW offers the reader are its distinctive language and setting. Of course, NW is a novel where place looms large. Like White Teeth, it’s another portrait of Zadie Smith’s north-west London; full of jostling cultures and competing classes, where the comfortably off and the poor often live in such close proximity.
I provided the link to That Crafty Feeling a couple of days ago. In this lecture, Smith talks about two kinds of novelists: the macro planner and the micro manager. She calls herself a micro manager and this is evident in her prose. Her observations are outstanding, her eye for minutiae ever sharp. As a fair-skinned person, I admired the accuracy of her portrayal of redheaded Leah, dressed in white linen, always hiding in the shade. The fat sun poses a constant threat to redheads and Leah’s awareness of her looks is omnipresent.
My own feelings about Leah are ambivalent but I think my ambivalence actually comes from her characterisation and is a key quality of NW. Perhaps it’s even one of the moral issues at stake in the novel? As Smith said in her Listener interview, “I’m fundamentally ambivalent a lot of the time, like Leah”.
Leah Hanwell is 35, married to Michel, a hairdresser, who is better looking that she is. He wants a baby, she doesn’t. Leah’s lack of maternal drive is still very much her secret in this section of the novel. I’m struck by a woman who seems out of sync with herself, dreamy and disassociated from her own body. Leah’s also the character most aligned with the authorial voice and vocabulary.
Visitation is defined by accidents and coincidence, including Shar knocking on the door of the flat and interrupting Leah’s world with a stranger’s plea for cash. This is a novel about the haves and have-nots; it’s a book that comes on the back of the London riots and the Occupy movement and it shows.
Smith is terrific at dialogue – one of her great gifts is her flair for convincingly portraying characters from all ethnicities and cultures. “He’s so lovely your Meeshell. Lovely way about him…He’s proper sensitive. Proper family orientated. When ever I’m thinking: where did all the good brothers get to? I think, breathe: at least there’s Meeshell.” She’s also great at names: Leah’s childhood friend, Natalie, was once called Keisha. Smith understands how telling our names are; how much they betray the limitations of our social class.
Confession: I did find NW a bit hard to get into. I kept stopping and starting, jolted out of the narrative by the staccato chapters and the floating fragments of conversation. This isn’t strictly a bad thing. NW is a very contemplative novel. I often find myself tripping over a sentence so good it sends me spinning off into my own thoughts and memories and it’s only after a few minutes that I realise I’ve lost my place on the page.
Final comment: so, just what is the significance of number 37? In Visitation several chapters are numbered 37 and I found myself flicking back and forth between them, looking for clues and common ground.