Candid camera on life in a London suburb
IN 2000 British critic James Wood coined the term ‘‘ hysterical realism’’ in response to a propensity among several contemporary novelists to cram their fiction with overblown detail, credulitystraining coincidences and characters that were all show.
One offender was Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, a book of energy and range marred by lapses into such hysterics: a terrorist Islamic group in London called KEVIN, a genetically engineered mouse, twins who break their noses about the same time. Smith responded to Wood’s charge by conceding her book was ‘‘ the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old’’.
More than a decade later, and seven years since Smith’s last novel, the sumptuous On Beauty, comes another London-set tale, NW. We are in Willesden and Kilburn, northwest pockets of the capital where Smith grew up and where much of White Teeth takes place.
‘‘ Ungentrified, ungentrifiable’’, she informs us near the beginning, before going on to offer candid suburban snapshots of multicultural life. NW charts the progress of four characters who started out on Caldwell, a grim housing estate. Some pursue upward trajectories, others are still in the gutter. As a result Smith has toned down the comedy from her earlier writing. This time we get sharper local colour, more scathing social observations and characters who appear more real.
The first section focuses on Leah who, though one of the more successful Caldwell escapees, still feels life has passed her by. ‘‘ While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.’’ She works for the council and her husband is a hairdresser. In contrast her best friend, Natalie, is a lawyer and married to a wealthy banker.
Leah muses on missed opportunities and stymied success (‘‘Moored to the shore she set out from’’) and Smith impresses by voicing Leah’s concerns but also taking us into her frenzied thoughts: ‘‘ And remember to lock the gate with the water pressure where the gas is hot in the oven of the plug to switch it off when By Zadie Smith Hamish Hamilton, 296pp, $29.99 you leave it using only red onions and a pinch of cinnamon then getting back before you need to use a minicab.’’
The second part of the novel shadows Felix, a former drug dealer and jack of all trades, as he moseys around his neighbourhood, conversing with friends and potential enemies. But the twist is that Smith ends Leah’s section with Felix being fatally stabbed. Here, then, we are immersed in backstory, the run-up to a death, and we read on to learn the circumstances of his murder. Part three charts Leah and Natalie from childhood to career women, told during the course of 185 vignettes with snappy headings. Smith also records cultural trends and fads in music, fashion, even speech. ‘‘ It was the year everyone was saying that such and such a person was ‘ their rock’.’’
Part four features Leah’s former crush, Nathan, who is ‘‘ just out here on the street, grinding. Bustin’ a gut, day in day out. Tryna get paid.’’ Nathan is going nowhere fast but, living on his wits, is able to smoke out the artifice in high-flyer Natalie.
Smith’s small, select cast carries NW, which is a huge responsibility: if a character doesn’t work it affects a segment of the novel, which in turn causes the whole thing to wobble. Fortunately they are convincing enough to pull it off. We hear that estate agents call the likes of Leah and Natalie ‘‘ the local vibrancy’’ and, indeed, Smith ensures her female leads (indeed the book’s leads) are lively enough to maintain our interest.
If Felix is bumped off before his character is properly formed and if Nathan is all shade and no light, they utter enough savvy hood-speak to beguile the reader. Yet again Smith excels at pitch-perfect dialogue, from slick streetwise vernacular to pretentious dinner-party chatter. The novel is imbued with this and more, becoming in places a cacophony of sound, a