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NW

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. 

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The Meaning of it All

So here it is, the greatest puzzle of all, life, the universe and everything, as discussed by the genius, Richard Feynman. The Nobel Prize winning physicist is often quoted in popular science; I thought it was about time I read him in his own words. This book contains three public lectures given in 1963. The first, entitled, ‘The Uncertainty of Science’, addresses the importance of doubt in science as the catalyst for ideas and progress and introduces his views on the remarkable process of scientific discovery.

He counters the misconception that science is dull with rich imagery:

‘The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun…But see that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observations could have imagined such a marvel as nature is.’

The themes of freedom and discovery remain in his second lecture on values, illustrated through an impressive employment of philosophy and ethics. His confident rhetoric shows in places a sensitive balance that allows the audience to consider his statements without pressure. I really enjoy reading lectures because so much of the speaker’s personality comes across. Watch the video below to get a sense of his brilliance.

I found the final lecture, ‘This Unscientific Age’, the most entertaining. His personal anecdotes, metaphors and allegories display his wit and intellect. The range of topics covered in the book mean there is never a lull. I was interested to read about the atomic bomb and Soviet Russia from a scientist’s perspective.

I could quote practically any line from the book and it would be wise and sensible, but I’ll finish with this as a nice example: ‘I think that we should have a more abject honesty in political matters. And I think we’ll be freer that way.’

I highly recommend the book and http://www.feynman.com/ to learn more about this amazing man. Did you know that as well as playing a key role in the development of quark theory by developing a new model of high energy proton collision processes he was an accomplished bongo player?

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