by Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 296pp, £18.99
There have been two debates in the 21st century about that old chestnut, the future of the novel, which have risen about the low-level jabbering and self-aggrandising that comprises most bookish speculation. The first was the publication in 2001 of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and his 2003 essay “Mr Difficult”. Coupled with his earlier essay, “Why Bother?” these were a mea culpa for his own dabbling in the avant-garde and a commitment to the so-called “Big Social Novel”.
In 2000, James Wood, perhaps the most talented reviewer of his generation, wrote a long essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth for the New Republic. It was abridged in the Guardian as “Tell Me, How Does It Feel?” and republished in his collection The Irresponsible Self. In it, he coined the phrase “hysterical realism” to diagnose Smith and others as suffering from this attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, the kind of book which “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being”. Smith replied in the same newspaper with an essay “This Is How It Feels To Me”, and did not collect it in her own non-fiction volume, Changing My Mind; preferring to include a less personal piece, “Two Directions For The Novel”. Her third novel, On Beauty, however, might almost be read as if not a rebuke, then a retort to Wood. Although it had a postmodern interface with an earlier novel, that novel – EM Forster’s Howard’s End – was very much on the naturalistic end of the modernist spectrum.
Seven years later and we have NW, her fourth novel. When the title was released I felt a pang of anxiety: was this a retreat to retread the locales and concerns of her debut? I need not have worried. NW is a triumph, a big social novel that shows that experimental techniques can be deployed to forge memorable and affecting human beings while still knowing a thousand things. It is a novelistic version of Thornton Wilder’s innovative and moving play Our Town. NW clearly refers to the London postcode where much of the novel takes place, but it is also, in my mind at least, New Wave.
The novel has four movements and a coda. The first section is focused on Leah Hanwell, an auburn-haired thirtysomething working in the charities sector. A young woman, Shar, turns up at her door, clearly in distress, asking for money to visit her mum who has been taken to hospital. Leah helps her, much to the annoyance of her husband Michel, who realises she has been scammed. In their brief interaction we learn that Shar and Leah went to the same school, the first of many coincidences and unwelcomed intimacies that shimmer through the book. Although she tries to challenge Shar when she sees her by chance, the story is equally revised into a dinner party anecdote for her schoolfriend, the mother and barrister Natalie de Angelis, who was known as Keisha Blake at school, and her financier husband Frank (Francesco). A sense of unplaceable, implacable threat grows, especially when, at a Carnival party, they hear of a stabbing near their street.
The second section shifts to the victim of the stabbing as he crosses London, tries to make amends to and finally split from an ex, and moves inevitably towards the point we know he will reach. The third moves to Natalie, and her transformation from being Keisha Blake to Natalie De Angelis, with the final section linking Natalie to Nathan Bogle, the promising footballer turned junkie they went to school with. A final coda is a tragic-comic fermata, a pause as an irrevocable decision is made about how interconnected these lives really are.
The sections are stylistically diverse, both in themselves and between each other. Keisha/Natalie’s narrative is presented as 185 discrete micro-stories. They are shrewdly observed: one, entitled “Architecture as destiny” begins “To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge”, in another, Keisha wonders why every time she goes into the kitchen at Leah’s, the DJ on the radio is between tracks (and Leah’s father thereby introduces her to Radio 4).
There are moments that turn into scattered snatches of poetry, interlapping instant messages, McSweeney-ish typographies where the words are arranged into the image of what they represent. The division of the narratives creates a form of ironic, deferred backstory, in each case rendering judgement more rather than less complex.
There is a wonderful pair of chapters in Leah’s section, where the routefinder directions are then contrasted to the “sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bud deadlock” and more. Although I had thought myself constitutionally incapable of reading another dinner party scene, Smith’s is so elegant and angry I might relent – “Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots… But Leah, someone is saying, in the end, at the end of the day, don’t you just want to give your individual child the very best opportunities you can give them individually? Pass the green beans with shaved almonds. Define best. Pass the lemon tart”.
A book about connection and disconnection, what binds and what severs, ought to be as subtly discontinuous and cunningly interwoven as this. The idiosyncratic forms of narration insist on the idiosyncratic nature of selves.
At its core though, NW is a novel about emotional, political and ethical choices, and the consequences of those choices. It is about how to be good, and what might divert that noble ambition. White Teeth had a Dickensian energy, and a Dickensian soft-heartedness (even the Islamic terrorists were written with a cautiously forgiving eye).
NW has a different Victorian novelist as its presiding spirit: the George Eliot of Middlemarch. Leah and Natalie, the poles around which the stories oscillate, are faced with dilemmas about love, work, children and duty, but refracted through our modern rhetorics of self, sex, liberation and possession. These are the voices of the Middlemartians.
Smith’s novel is not on this year’s Man Booker longlist. Perhaps some judges winced at a book which manages to include both Kierkegaard and vibrators. Perhaps some saw the profusion but not the unity. Either way, it is a shame that one of the year’s most delightful, intelligent and fundamentally grown-up novels should be thus overlooked.
• Zadie Smith is at the Edinburgh book festival today, 8pm