This is a down and dirty review. The last book review of the year. The last blog entry of the year (unless something nustobananas happens tomorrow). And the last time I strenuously avoid the year-end impulse to list the whatever-est things from 2012.
But I’m doing it fast. Gots holidays to prep for and such.
Zadie Smith’s NW: My favorite book about multiracial, multiclass, multicreed multitime London.
My favorite book about the complex friendship of a poor white woman and a wealthier black woman.
My favorite book about how sometimes women don’t want to be parents.
My favorite book about circumstantially linked neighbors having briefly intersecting adventures.
My favorite book about how if an upwardly mobile black woman smokes drugs with the homeless addict friend she used to go to school with, do you call it slumming?
My favorite book in which a totally obvious metaphor is rendered emotional, poignant, and downright mysterious. Linked to our deepest truths.
First, a brief plot summary to orient y’all:
Leah Hanwell and Keisha/Natalie Blake (she changed her name in law school—that’s the metaphor referenced above) become friends early in life, when they live in the same “council estate,” which is the Brit version of projects that, since they’re British, are both nicer and not nicer than ours, depending on various factors unclear to me. They remain lifelong friends, despite dramatically different lives. But they have pretty much simultaneous midlife crises, which coincide with crises for two other NW residents. All four characters have sections of the book, but Leah’s and Keisha/Natalie’s stories are the book’s main investment.
In my pre-review of the book, I noted that Smith does teenage girls better than pretty much anyone I can think of. I also said that in NW, the teen girls grow up and into some of the best developed women I’ve read.
A word about the critical reception. I’ve been reading reviews since the book came out. I don’t need to link to them: ya’ll can trust me on this, since we’re all in a holidays-type rush. The consensus seems to be that the book is amazing except for how the Keisha/Natalie character is undeveloped. Or shallowly portrayed. Or less effective, somehow than Leah.
I respectfully but vehemently disagree.
The Keisha/Natalie section was the fullest of insights. The fullest!
I can see why the critics think that, though. The section is numbered. The language is clinical and distant. The stream-of-consciousness is more alienating than that of Leah’s section, which opens the book.
But readers, I declare: these are the reasons that this section is the best.
The whole point of Natalie is that she does her duty, stifles her emotions, and identifies as a robot version of black-lawyer-lady.
The whole point of Natalie is that she cannot be Keisha. And the whole point of Keisha, in fact, is that Keisha’s academic abilities and sexual drives alienated her from her world and pushed her into being Natalie. Alienated her from her deeply religious family whose expectations of her went no further than a business certificate and church choir. From her school, which expected not much more from people “like her.” From her best friend, whose white privilege afforded her to embrace experimental drugs and sex as her own rebellion.
For Natalie, no rebellion is possible. The only way to live is as a robot. Here is a brief commentary on her and her high school boyfriend’s life choices.
They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.
And here’s how the name change is addressed, in section 59, “Proper Names,” when visiting Leah and meeting her eco-activist friends.
‘Guys, this is Keisha, she—‘ ‘No: Natalie.’ ‘Sorry, this is Natalie, we went to school together,’ said Leah. ‘She goes here, she’s a lawyer. It’s so weird to see you guys!’ When Leah proceeded to offer these people a round—‘No, you sit, we’ll get’—Natalie Blake panicked, her budget being extremely tightly managed with no space for rounds of drinks for Crusties to whom she had never before spoken in her life. But at the bar, Leah handed over a twenty and Natalie’s only job was to arrange six pints on a round tray best suited for five.
To all the critics who think this isn’t in-depth character development: It’s called subtext! Sheesh.
Leah thinks that Natalie’s only barely her friend. Her richie rich life, her children, her picture-perfect home all alienate Leah, who’s still living in council housing. But Natalie clings to the friendship, thinks of it constantly, and eventually begins to understand the ways she has distanced herself from what she needs the most.
For example, here’s Natalie’s description of meeting for lunch.
Leah defended Natalie’s right not to accept religion disguised as carnival fun. Leah told a story about her mother being impossible. Natalie defended Leah’s right to be outraged by her mother’s misdemeanors, be they ever so small. Leah told a funny story about upstairs Ned. She told a funny story about Michel’s bathroom habits. Natalie noticed with anxiety that Leah’s stories had no special emphasis or intention.
Is there a description of friends grown apart that rips you up more than this? Is there a better way to understand what it takes to achieve upward mobility? In England, for a black girl from a poor family?
The ways that Leah and Natalie keep missing each other. The ways that Natalie cannot stop being Keisha. The ways that both women cannot accept their domesticity.
That’s another thing about this book: Leah and Natalie do not want to be parents. Natalie eventually has kids because she “always does what’s expected of her.” Or something like that (in a rush here!) How hard is that? For married women? To not want to have babies?
I cannot stop thinking about this book and its portrayal of women who are completely stuck. Finally, there’s the time theme, mentioned in some reviews, titling this very post: These women are stuck, but time keeps pushing at them anyway. Inexorably. While they try to stay stuck, because past and future are as alienating to them as their current stuckness.
Best book of the year? Perhaps. If I were a list-making type, I might put it at the top.
I just might.