Sunday 13 January 2013

NW - Zadie Smith is probably a witch

Yeah, I have a Kindle now. What of it?
NW by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton: 2012). Zadie Smith tours North West London, introducing a series of characters whose identities are tied up in their surroundings. Hopping forward and back in time, Smith explains their lives as they try to grow out of the boundaries they were born into.
WITCH! Zadie Smith must be a witch, for there is magic here. Just a few drops, but enough to take something which, on the surface, shouldn’t be all that compelling, and make it a little bit brilliant.

Low grade witchery, maybe, but impressive.
First things first - forget the plot. There’s not much of it. There’s more  in a paragraph of Grisham than in the whole of NW. Sure, there’s the odd spike of drama, and it speeds up towards the end. But it never feels dramatic. No screaming, no explosions, no cliff hanger moments. It all just melds into the pages like so many other words before it. And in between the spikes, we have long passages of such exciting adventures as "some guy buying a car" and "a suburban dinner party".
But Smith isn’t relying on plot. It’s not that kind of book. It’s the kind that successfully recreates a world which you become trapped in.
Trapped? OK, maybe not the best word. I don’t mean like Fritzl trapped. Trapped in a good way. 

NW is, in large sections, inescapable. And it’s not because you’re desperate to find out what happens next. Not much ever happens next. It’s because the feel of the book is so complete and so authentic that you find yourself switching off from everything else and simply living there. Living with the North Londoners as they go about their daily business and reveal their dreams and fears to you drip by drip.
And make no mistake, it’s the place and not the people that is the star (calling the book NW was probably the giveaway there, genius). The people are interesting enough. They have dilemmas. They have under-the-surface emotional tension. But Smith doesn’t go to town in explaining every nook and cranny of their lives. This isn't a Kilburn version of EastEnders. In fact, she leaves a few blanks. 

But the place, North West London and its social fabric – that is pretty complete. Not because of reams and reams of overt description, but because of the magic I mentioned. The witchery Smith uses to make you feel the place. Not just know it or understand it, but feel it.
It’s tough to explain, which is why Zadie Smith is Zadie Smith and I am not. I know when I talk about the power of atmosphere in a book, it can be interpreted as shorthand for boooorriiiinnng. Another way of saying not much happens. And to an extent, that could be true. I didn’t dive at this book in every spare five seconds I had. It didn’t scream “read me” with excitement. But whenever I did pick it up, I got trapped again in a place that felt worth spending more time in.
It’s not boring. It’s powerful without being explosive. It’s meaningful without being bombastic. It’s forceful without being shocking.
Which is tough to do. Magical even.
A pretty high score, stopping short of anything higher because the 9s and 10s are reserved for those books that leave you breathless and hungry. NW is special. But breathless and hungry? Not quite.
Next week, a bit of old school Waugh, because it’s been a while and I miss him.


Anonymous said...

I am going in search of this book today! M

Gav Collins said...

Oh dear, I suddenly feel responsible. Hope you like it!

Unknown said...

Hope Zadie Smith reads this blog - should make one happy author

Gav Collins said...

If Zadie Smith read this blog, that'd make one happy blogger too!