Frontier Psychiatrist

The Fullness of Time: A Review of Zadie Smith, NW

Posted on: September 19, 2012

Zadie Smith, NW

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s writing has certainly changed in the 12 years since her debut novel White Teeth. She takes more risks and has become more obscure, placing more weight on the shoulders of the reader to interpret her meaning. While her style may be off-putting to some, it does allow her to creatively describe, say, the placement of teeth and fillings in one character’s mouth with a literary graphic.

In her new novel NW, Smith explores the London neighborhood through the eyes of best friends Leah and Keisha over the course of 35 years. Despite how much her neighborhood has fallen on hard times, Leah still feels sympathetic to those that dwell there, and relates to them as well. They are of the generation that grew up without global-minimizing connective technology, but eventually grew into it. Their first memories are of a limited location: Northwest London and the subtle differences between the people, streets, and homes that exist therein. They knew where their friends were without Twitter and how to get somewhere without Google Maps. Which is not to say they don’t embrace social media when they grow up. Who knew ChatRoulette could be referenced in literature?). So how does one stay grounded in the physical realm while steadily adapting to an abstract one?

Zadie Smith, NW

The book is separated into four sections (Visitation, Guest, Host, Crossing), each with its own pacing and perspective. While geography may seem like the obvious premise (NW being the postal code in the northwest section of London), the perception of time grows in importance throughout the novel. Smith’s different set up in each section hammers home this theme, as in the 184-chapter, assault-rifle styled third section which  relies upon a Kierkegaard quote: “And now the moment. Such a moment has a peculiar character. It is brief and temporal indeed, like every moment; it is transient as all moments are; it is past, like every moment in the next moment. And yet it is decisive, and filled with the eternal. Such a moment ought to have a distinctive name; let us call it the Fullness of Time.

Keisha’s fixation on this idea stems from her growing apart from her best friend Leah. They two were inseparable as kids, bonded by witnessing a traumatic event, a single transient moment they can never recover. While the two main characters look backward, the other characters believe in progress. Leah’s co-workers are obsessed with pregnancy and children. Her husband Michel always talks about “getting there” as a couple, but Leah can’t help but think “Why must love ‘move forward?’” And while Keisha may be nostalgic for a time when she and her best friend could just verb with each other (“they ran, jumped, danced, sang, bathed, colored-in, rode bikes…”), an old friend comments how she’s stayed exactly the same after years of not seeing her; that is, she’s always acted with an air of superiority over the rest of her classmates: “you always wanted to make it clear you weren’t like the rest of us. You’re still doing it.” Which may be why Keisha changes her name to Natalie in college. But rather than a rose smelling just as sweet, it is a rose failing to outrun her issues of self-perception and self-consciousness. Throughout Host, we learn that “Natalie,” with no small thanks to the advent of the Internet, is harboring a secret that “Keisha” never could.

It’s hard not to ask: why does Natalie stay in NW? She never says she hates it, and obviously she wants to be near her family, but she’s always felt this ‘otherness’ whether conscious of it or not (and not necessarily racial ‘otherness’). In fact, both Leah and Natalie experience attachments in unconventional ways. The book begins with Leah thinking she’s helping a stranger get to the hospital to see her sick mum, but is actually getting ripped off by a drug addict. Since she believes so much in her neighborhood though, she wants to put her faith in this complete stranger. And when Natalie gives birth (finally) under the influence of all the drugs, she compared it to clubbing all night. When the birth is over, the feeling of emptiness was almost worse than a come-down from Ecstasy.

There is a ubiquitous number 37 (which Wikipedia tells me follows 36 and precedes 38), but tracking its meaning can distract from the more prominent themes: its existence is based more on coincidence than connection.  And not necessarily a qualm, but all of the hyperlocal references made me feel excluded as a reader, not being able to recognize the connotations that certain neighborhoods within NW contain. But while knowing that may have enhanced the experience, not knowing didn’t necessarily detract. London is a city like any city. There’s good and bad people all over and the relationships they create, intimate or fleeting, constructive or destructive, can be applicable to even the most rural of readers.

Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer. His recent book reviews include Home by Toni Morrison,A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, In My Home There Is No Sorrow by Rick Bass and Hot Pink by Adam Levin. Although he lives in Chicago, his fall travel agenda includes New York, Israel, and China.

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