The Short Version: The story of four residents of Willesden, Northwest London – four different, disparate individuals who grew up together but grew into separate lives… without ever manging to escape the draw of the NW. After a surprising intrustion into Leah’s life, the four characters swirl inexorably back towards each other and a sudden conclusion.
The Review: This is a novel that, in many ways, defies summary. What is it about? It is about people. I know, I know, most novels are exactly that. But how else can you explain what Zadie Smith accomplishes here? She’s written a novel about these four incredibly alive and realistic people living in a place that might as well exist as a character of its own. This achievement is far greater than it sounds because I cannot think of a novel I’ve read recently that does the same thing so damn well. The sound is the thing.
Actually, I can. And I’m a little loathe to make this comparison but here we go: Dickens. I just started Bleak House and in the first chapter, Dickens makes a great show of capturing the unique cadences of certain London individuals. It’s the same thing here: Smith sets a bold precedent when, a few pages in, Shar comes a-knocking on Leah’s door and speaks for the first time – and the way it’s written, the bold and unique cadences of northwest London are captured in amber there on the page.
It’s always a frightening proposition, to see a writer trying to capture the patois of any particular accent. For every Dickens or Smith, there are hundreds of absolute failures. It’s hard to do, writing – even harder to do when you try to approximate the way words sound instead of just writing the words themselves. And I would accept that someone who wasn’t as familiar with London as yours truly might still find this form of writing off-putting. But I don’t even really know that farther-flung boroughs to the west (I lived in the East End, myself) and yet I was there. I could hear the so easily imitated and yet so hard to truly imitate accents flowing out of the page like there were speakers included with the book that played it out for me.
But the language, of course, would be nothing without the people speaking it. And again, Smith has an uncanny ability to create something that feels more sensory and panoramic than what’s on the page. It all feels so vivid, despite (or perhaps because?) of the whirling stylistic changes that Smith indulges in. The novel takes place, broadly, in four parts and a coda – each of the four parts loosely centered around one particular character (although even that structure fades by part four) and the coda bringing them all together. (ed. note – coda is my own term for the last section of the book, as that’s much more what it feels like than a comparable section to the rest of the novel) Each also carries its own stylistic idiosyncracies: the first/fourth/coda are all relatively straightforward literature, while part two has a Mrs. Dalloway-esque feeling of following one person (although not so stream-of-consciousness) through a day and part three (which is also the largest part) is small nuggets of information in forms ranging from plain prose to an instant message conversation to authorial interjections.
Some people, again, will be turned off by this. Experimental lit like that has a way of annoying people – but I’d argue that this was realism in its purest form. What’s more real today than bursts of information, easily* digested? I flag that easily because many of these sections aren’t easily digested in the sense that they remain with you as you read the rest of the novel, building up in a cumulative way as opposed to flashing before you and disappearing as quickly (as with most things of relative/comparable tweet-size). Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review, for example, seemed to find this methodology of constructing characters and narrative to be slapdash. Perhaps it’s truly a generational issue – because my so-called ‘millenial’ mind saw these characters as perhaps more vividly realized than even those of so many ‘classic’ novels, because they felt so very real and of-this-moment. A classical characterisation (and I’ll include even characters in ‘traditionally’ written novels published today) can still feel like a Botticelli painting but Leah and Natalie (especially) felt like the people I might talk to via gchat on any given day. There’s an inherent difference because the former is fixed, created, static (no matter how beautiful) while the latter is living, breathing, flawed (and always, in some way, beautiful).
As for the meat of the novel, there are issues raised here that are thorny, complicated, and ultimately unresolvable. I could laundry list all of the issues that come up in… but that’d do a disservice to the issues at hand. Some of them are only addressed glancingly or obliquely, some are the Major Themes of the novel – but the cornucopia of topics is part of what makes the novel feel again like an organic representation of life in the modern age. Even in the final moments, I was almost shocked by the way Leah and Natalie were acting – but also, at the same time, it felt totally logical. It felt right. Perhaps someone else who has read the novel more closely than I could prove me wrong – but (and I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers here) I think the girls had it wrong. There was no evidence that I could discern that proved, conclusively, that Nathan was in fact a “person of interest” – but it also felt like the right choice, the logical one in the age of “see something, say something”. To’ve ended the novel in any other way would’ve felt wrong is what I’m saying.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. The novel is not without flaws, for sure – but it feels, to me, like the sort of mature experimentation one should expect from Ms. Smith at this time in her career. And I say that not having previously read any of her work – although I’m certainly going to seek out the other novels tout suite now. It is lyrical, flowing, and magical – but at the same time, real. Dirty. Truthful. It is the magic of regular old time and space, as we human beings experience it every day. We just don’t usually notice it.