Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, surprised me. I was expecting something like White Teeth or On Beauty, but the complexity and intense poetry of this created something strong and unexpected. It primarily charts the lives of best friends Leah and Keisha who grow up together on the same estate. Though it initially focuses on Leah, I preferred the later section, ‘Host’, that adopts Keisha’s perspective in brief scenes, told with the senses of memory, that bring them from childhood to adulthood. It explores whether Keisha can successfully negotiate a class transition. She chooses a new name, Natalie, for her new life as she succeeds professionally and marries wealthy Frank, who looks like ‘he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’. Zadie Smith’s characters are, as always, multifaceted and very authentic. I loved her description of Keisha’s teenage angst:
‘It did not strike Keisha Blake that such feelings of alienation are the banal fate of adolescents everywhere. She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness that she now knew to be the one and only true reality in this world.’
The lives of two men are also introduced in this anthropological consideration of an urban landscape. Felix and Nathan have both struggled to establish functional lives after their beginnings on the Caldwell estate. Poverty, failure and distress are never far from the lives of NW’s people; there seems to be a sort of inevitable tragedy about this novel. The moment that struck me the most was when Natalie and Nathan meet for the last time in the text. She tells him, ‘It’s weird to me that you can be so vital to another person and never know it. You were so…loved’. Yet that can do little for him.
There are moments that show Zadie Smith’s clever humour. Cultural references ground the chronology realistically, though some were rather lost on me. I struggled a little with some of the prose as semi-sentences often tailed off, as if I inherently knew what she was getting at. I’m afraid I didn’t. Unfortunately, my professional brain also initially interfered with my enjoyment; I kept thinking how difficult it would be to proofread! Once I got past my grammatical fixations, I found the creativity of form refreshing.
NW is just right in some ways. Reading it feels like a trip to London: a city sometimes dense, stressful and un-cohesive, but ultimately it provides a chance to see a cross-section of life in glimpses. It is sometimes beautiful or brutal, but it is always vital and feels essentially real and alive.
James Joyce’s fifteen short stories, originally published in 1914, are an insightful portrait of Dublin’s middle-class in the early twentieth century. Joyce creates instantly believable characters; his gift for description let me accept them immediately as alive in their tales. It’s lines like the following that show his ease of style:
‘His conversation, which was serious, took place at intervals in his great brown beard.’
This is from ‘The Mother’, a story in which hints of humour describe a controlling mother whose expectations are disappointed as the tale unravels. Another of my favourite lines came from this piece:
‘She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed; though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as male.’
Other highlights for me came with ‘Eveline’, ‘Little Cloud’ and ‘The Dead’ which share a depth of emotion. All the stories share the common theme of epiphany, I feel that the moments of revelation in these three are the most affecting.
Joyce’s dialogue is a thing of beauty. He skilfully crafts authentic voices for each speaker in varying dialects. The extraordinary vocabulary is another reason to read this; it was a joy to be reminded of words that I hardly ever see like ‘equipoise’ and ‘lugubrious’.
I had the preconception that Joyce was going to be hard going, but that really wasn’t the case at all. I tended to read just one story at a time when I had a moment as each stands alone. It wasn’t one of those books that once I’d started, I had to finish immediately, but the stories stayed in my mind for a long time afterwards and I periodically found myself drawn back to it, compelled to re-enter Joyce’s Dublin.
Booker Prize winning author, Pat Barker, deserves her acclaim; she skilfully creates the believable world of Toby’s Room. Beginning in 1912, this dark novel explores the horror and loss of the First World War, largely through the thoughts of Elinor, an artist whose brother and close friends leave for the front line. The mystery of her beloved sibling’s cause of death is her obsession through the latter part of the text. Barker’s clever narration follows the musings of her characters, allowing occasions of ellipsis to reveal uncertainty and ambiguities of feeling, mirroring the secrets and enigma in the plot.
Elinor is interesting, but I preferred the scenes between her friends, Paul and Kit. The discussions of art provide a visual frame of reference and expression. Kit is particularly compelling as his morphine-induced flashbacks gradually reveal life on the front line and the truth about the eponymous Toby.
I found parts of the book too gruesome for my taste as dissections and facial injuries feature heavily. I can see, however, that it builds the intended atmosphere of horror and shock; the author is pushing for a visceral realism that gives the novel its emotive power.
Although some of the plot choices didn’t sit right with me (I’m afraid I can’t elaborate without spoilers) it is a vivid and honest portrayal of the era, of grief and destruction.
Evan S. Connell’s portrait of conservative housewife, Mrs Bridge, cleverly exposes the instabilities of domestic life in the interwar years. A series of brief chapters, that feel more like sub-headings, direct the reader through telling chronological vignettes that map her social relations and the upbringing of her three children.
In terms of realism, it is a success. Her quiet struggles are compelling and human. It says much about the pressures and constraints on women at that time. The limited list of acceptable conversation topics is telling:
‘…the by-laws of certain committees, antique silver, Royal Doulton, Wedgewood, the price of margarine as compared to butter, or what the hemline was expected to do.’
The Telegraph’s review calls it ‘very funny’; the well-pitched irony and some of the more comical, absurd scenes are testament to this. However, humour doesn’t figure largely in my lasting impression of the novel.
Mostly, I found it saddening. Mrs Bridge is trapped by her own limited ideas and experience, the expectations of her social group and control of her husband. I found her relationship with Mr Bridge very affecting. He memorably says to his son, ‘You’ll express yourself when I say you can.’ This could easily have been levelled at his wife. Her complete deference to him is shown starkly when she feels like she’s about to faint at church and he tells her not to until afterwards. She complies.
The author’s great success is in creating a moving and engaging novel around an essentially unlikeable, prejudiced character. It moves between the tragic and the ordinary in an understated and stylish manner.