Can­did cam­era on life in a Lon­don sub­urb


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

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

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