Monday, January 6, 2014

Zadie Smith

I fell in love with British author Zadie Smith after reading her first novel, White Teeth, which she partially wrote and actually received a contract for, while still a student at Cambridge University. That should give you an inkling of the kind of talent we're talking about here. Another book, On Beauty, knocked me out as well. So why, you might ask, did it take me so long to pick up her 2012 NW?
If it was because the reviews weren't raving, I don't remember that. I'm sure it was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award. However, even though I'd like to introduce you to her writing if you haven't read her, I might not suggest beginning with this one, even though I enjoyed it, the non-traditional format may be off-putting for some.
Ms. Smith, of Jamaican and English heritage, writes knowledgeably about the difficulty of assimilation and the cultural confusion inherent in the immigrant experience, whether in her home town of London, or in the states, where she also lives and teaches. This theme runs through much of her work but seems to take a darker turn in NW, a section of northern London, home to a mixed bag of Irish and Afro-Caribbean families, where the shops and homes are a tad run down, drugs and street thugs are a problem, and educated young people want nothing more than to move up and out.
The central characters Leah and Keisha have been friends since they were five years old and have tried desperately to hang onto their connection even though their lives have gone in very diverse directions. As adults, Leah has followed her white guilt to its logical conclusion, working for a non-profit that tries to identify and raise up those who need help in the community, and marrying Michel, an African hairdresser.
Keisha, on the other hand, changes her name to the less African sounding Natalie, leaving her family behind for a wealthy Italian man whose family is willing to bankroll her education, resulting in the law degree that her husband Frank could not obtain. Within both of these couples there seems to be an uncomfortable imbalance which comes to the fore whenever they get together socially, causing a frisson of friction that Smith describes in deliciously snarky language.
Smith reminds me of a social anthropologist, dissecting a world that she has observed well and long. Friends who begin life on an equal footing drift away from each other as some prefer the languor of the drug life over the tension of fighting to rise up. Others are mired in the ways of their families, getting pregnant before getting educated and finding themselves trapped. The randomness of life in a volatile neighborhood is exemplified by the lovable character Felix who puts the thug life behind to spread the word of God and then finds himself, shockingly, on the wrong end of a knife for all the wrong reasons.
I tried an experiment with NW, checking both the print copy and the audio cd's out from the library. While some chapters flow along in the usual narrative manner, others are confusing and difficult to follow until you adjust to Smith's innovative styling. Often a chapter is only one sentence and you may need to read it several times to be sure who's talking. At other times, a long chapter will consist of two characters' stream of consciousness ramblings, delineated by typeface and or bold type.
I'll admit that I got into it pretty quickly, wondering all the time, how did she DO this? When I got in my car I would find the track on the disc where I had left off in the book and pick it up with no trouble, enjoying the lilting cadence of the readers, the male and female voices.
Zadie Smith has had her work shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and has been acknowledged as a young British writer to watch. Take my word for it, she can put a sentence together like nobodies' business. If a novel seems to be too much, why not take a look at her collection of essays called, I love it, Changing My Mind.

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