I’ve spent the past few hours looking up articles on Anna Karenina and then on NW by Zadie Smith. I’m headed to a book group discussion of Anna Karenina tomorrow, but because I read the book over three years ago, I needed a little refresher. It turns out that I’ve forgotten A LOT. I started reading up on NW for this blog post because, while I had a better handle on the novel and a vaster like of it than I thought I would going into it, I was confused by the ending and wanted someone to explain it to me. When I finally read an article by someone who just plain said that the ending didn’t make much sense, I stopped researching and decided to start writing. What I learned on the way, though, is that there are some AK allusions in NW that I didn’t pick up on while reading it, but when pointed out to me, make sense. There’s literally a cat named Karenin, for one. And, of course, there is the matter of unhappy marriages, which abound in NW.
The book is essentially about two women, Leah and Keisha/Natalie, close enough to feel like sisters growing up in a London housing project as children, still best friends, but in the way that they actually hate each other, as adults. Some of the overarching themes of the book are clearly illustrated by these two: Leah is white and Keisha/Natalie is black. As adults, Natalie and her husband are successful professionals living in a nice house with spoiled children, throwing multi-culti dinner parties and Leah and her husband are a struggling nonprofit worker and a hairdresser living in a modest house with a dog. Roaming around outside on the streets are a young woman in a headscarf that cheats Leah out of some money and then serves as Leah’s obsession, and Nathan Bogle, a classmate of theirs who has ended up a drug-addled pimp on the streets.
The first section of the book, from Leah’s third person POV, centers around her encounter with the young woman, Shar, and her struggle not to get pregnant while allowing her husband to think they are trying to have a baby. The style is easy to follow although it has elements of stream of consciousness lyricism and conversations with dead fathers and uses dashes instead of quotes and different sizes of type. The second section features a young man named Felix, from the same neighborhood as the girls and finally starting to move beyond a past involving substance abuse and poor choices. The reader follows him through his day, leaving the bed of his new lovely girlfriend, going to buy a used car from a white hipster, meeting up with an ex-girlfriend, having a chance encounter with some thugs who wind up stabbing him to death. The women encounter him only through news stories on his murder. The third section backtracks to when the girls were four years old, when Keisha–who later changes her name to Natalie, distancing herself from her “council flats” origins–saves Leah from drowning in a public pool. This section is split up into more than 180 small chunks, each with titles. When I read an excerpt in the New Yorker I hated the structure, but within the context of the book, I didn’t mind it. It made me think of a conversation I had in a writing workshop once where a woman was talking about how she had to write a bunch of boring scenes in order to get to the real meat her of her book. Almost simultaneously, the rest of the group said, “Skip the boring scenes!” No one wants furniture moving or filler. When covering over thirty years of story in a third of a book, little snippets seemed like a wise choice to me. I also don’t read for escapism or to be immersed–I am too concerned with language and structure for that–so I didn’t mind the remove that the structure created. There is no avoiding that one is reading a book rather than slipping into another world when a title interrupts you every half page.
So–the end of the book–this is Zadie Smith we’re talking about here so it is hard for me to believe that what seems to be to be a very hasty resolution that doesn’t feel earned nor particularly sensical is actually hasty or unearned or nonsensical. I could more easily believe that I don’t get it. I’m not sure which is true. Help me out with this one, friends. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
In any case, the good outweighed the bad for me. I loved spending time with the questions of women’s identities and insecurities that are raised and explored here and I thought some of the sentences and paragraph constructions were total genius. Despite some philosophical and narrative concerns, on a line level, there is much to love.