‘I am the sole author’ NW – Zadie Smith

Any novel of London needs to do three things: it must capture the web of human and geographic relations and transitions that underpin each neighbourhood, it must capture the energy of the streets, and it should do justice to the languages of thought and speech which unite and separate all of the city’s inhabitants. NW succeeds brilliantly on all three counts in wonderfully economical language of its own even if the novel is not flawless in other respects.

‘I know you. You went Brayton!’

NW focuses on two childhood friends who escape the Caldwell estate they grew up on in Willesden (Smith’s childhood home). Leah Hanwell is white and of Irish descent, whilst Keisha Blake (who transforms herself into Natalie Blake) is of black African descent. Both face prejudice, especially when Leah marries a black man herself. The phrase ‘No offence’ fails to take the sting out of her colleagues’ complaints: ‘for the women in our community, in the Afro-Caribbean community, no offence, but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue.’ Natalie works hard to get to university and become a lawyer, apparently against all the odds, where she meets her mixed race husband Frank who has always lived a life of privilege and who seems immune to the suspicion apparently directed towards his wife. Both women feel their background and current circumstances alienate them from themselves and others.

‘Leah, born and bred, never goes anywhere.’

Natalie is trapped by the apparent freedom she worked so hard to attain, whilst Leah is trapped because she lacks the drive her friend needed to exceed the constraints she herself was never subject to. The idea of being one’s ‘sole author’ is examined from every angle by Smith. Time and again Natalie speaks of having escaped and exceeded her origins. Leah seems to refuse to author anything, stuck in a mire and refusing motherhood, whilst Natalie submits to the role out of propriety as much as anything else. Keisha/Natalie symbolises the divided nature of a minority’s ambitions and identity whilst Leah’s stagnation stands as a clear warning that no easy answer in terms of colour, creed, or family background can be given to explain the various fates of NW’s inhabitants.

I’m from SE London rather than NW and of a very different background from the characters of Smith’s novel. However, the speech of Kilburn and Willesden is not all that different from where I grew up and went to school. The language of Shar, whom we meet as an apparent petitioner at Leah’s door, instantly transports us to the context of NW. (‘Thank you, yeah?’) And speaking of the shaping of language and thought, Smith occasionally emulates the forms of concrete poetry, especially in the earlier parts of the book, which serves to emphasise this connection between perception, representation, and language very effectively.

Smith’s writing in NW is at its best in the central section ‘Host’ composed of one-hundred and eighty-five numbered passages, some only a sentence long, others several pages. These passages chart Keisha’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, with each adding a detail to the tapestry of moments that Smith presents in a reciprocal relationship of manifestation and generation. Each episode defines as well as expresses the process of Keisha Blake becoming Natalie De Angelis whilst a void remains at the centre. Her life is all structure and façade without any substance that she can find. ‘Host’ is a masterpiece all by itself, assuredly depicting the contradictions and quandaries of Natalie’s life in an accumulation of aphorism and narrative.

NW is suffused with philosophy both tacit and explicit. As Leah studies in Edinburgh, it’s hard not to wince at those incredibly cringeworthy but utterly necessary (and familiar) undergraduate moments when one lectures friends and family on partially understood philosophical theories. The age-old philosophical questions of identity and responsibility that a new-found self-awareness bring motivate much of NW. Indeed, Smith’s novel stands for responsibility, but this responsibility is far from reductive, and whose responsibility is fundamental is far from clear. Which is just as it should be. The foundational Camusian question of suicide raises its head more than once and, indeed, it is Camus, Kierkegaard, and Montaigne who hover behind much of troubled thought in NW. Which is not to say that the book is heavy-going: far from it. These thinkers wrestled with humanity and its unavoidable accompaniment, finitude. Smith’s achievement is in humanising such reflection in a stripped down manner that is both intensely contemporary and yet timeless.  Issues of community, identity, language, perception, consciousness and self-awareness, and obligation in one part of London echo across all of human history. That sounds grandiose, but Smith renders each local.

‘Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even understand.’

What makes complete sense to an inhabitant of Caldwell, and which used to be understood by Natalie, is now beyond her. That language, that mode of thought, has disappeared. To continue the philosophical theme and to mangle Wittgenstein slightly, “the truth of certain empirical propositions belongs to our frame of reference.” Natalie’s frame of reference has changed and fits smoothly nowhere.  What is true to her, self-evident even, fits neither within the frame of reference of her childhood friends and family, nor in that of her husband and co-workers: a void opens up in consequence, which she tries to fill in the most incomprehensible of ways.

Beneath all the existential angst is the casual and shocking violence any inhabitant of London is familiar with. ‘Respect’ seems to have become so twisted a concept that its undermining equates to instant violence and murder. One senses that it is this aspect more than any other that Smith reveals her true feelings. It is where her language becomes most committal in its portrayal and where the dichotomy of community and justice becomes most apparent.

NW is not without its problems.  ‘Guest’ which follows the Felix as he tries to turn his life around is less convincing than the passages which focus on Leah and Natalie, its motivation and drive less clear and plausible than the rest of the novel. There is also a moment in a playground where Natalie and others lambast a boy for smoking which feels a little forced. But these are small concerns within the greater whole of the novel.

Allusive, multi-layered, and endlessly interpretable, NW is as rich, complex, and refractory as its subject matter. It will reward many rereadings. Alongside Keith Ridgway’s very different Hawthorn and Child it stands as one of the great books of London.

NW is out now.

My thanks to Penguin for providing this review copy.

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

I really wanted to love Toby’s Room – released 16th August – because, whilst it is not in any way a bad book, I had not enjoyed Life Class, the book whose events are sandwiched by those in Toby’s Room, as much as I had hoped. Toby’s Room was going to bring me back to Barker. However, I found it oddly unsatisfactory despite, or perhaps because of, its thoroughly competent and occasionally powerful character. Toby’s Room returns to the young Slade-trained artists of Life Class, Elinor Brooke, her ex-lover Paul Tarrant, and Kit Neville, as well as their artist-surgeon teacher Henry Tonks by whom Barker was clearly fascinated and who plays a larger part in Toby’s Room as the portraitist of disfigured servicemen. At the heart of everything is Elinor’s brother Toby whose presence haunts the novel. Their complex relationship of desire and dependence, and his apparent disappearance and death on the battlefield set her on an obsessive mission to discover what happened to him. So close growing up, one day is enough to derail their relationship.

Toby had been right all along. Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.

After he is reported ‘Missing: Believed Killed’ Toby’s bedroom becomes the repository of guilt and longing, but most of all the signifier of the empty space inside Elinor. It is the space she needs to fill, to exorcise, before any resolution becomes possible. His ghost is everywhere, not least in the person of Elinor herself, who bears such a resemblance to Toby. Following his disappearance her work becomes inspired, she paints landscapes each of which contains the diffuse shadow of her brother. Indeed, Toby is only ever seen through the eyes of others, all artists, which is fitting as the analysis and deconstruction of the War, and of Toby in particular, by each of them seems to be Barker’s key concern. In the pre-War section Tonks enrols Elinor in an anatomy class where she dissects an unknown man and is repelled by so clinical an approach to the human form: she cannot see the life in such an artistic programme.

 Churned-up flesh; churned-up landscape.

The ordered and disordered in the analysis and destruction of flesh underpins the novel and probes the artist’s role and aims in the body’s depiction. As Paul Tarrant puts it when describing his Nash-echoing landscapes, ‘The point is, the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.’ This affinity between ruined earth and ruined flesh can be seen in Kit Neville, who returns from France with an awful facial injury and is sent to the specialist facial reconstruction hospital at which Tonks works to record the progress, or lack thereof, of the patients’ recoveries. Neville is an unflinching, unsympathetic Modernist, all hard edges and machined parts, all of which make him ideal both as an observer in France, and as the individual whose facial disfigurement both challenges his Futurist aesthetic and leads to his being, in turn, subject to another’s analytic gaze.

The northern light flooding in through the high windows was pitiless, but not more so that Tonk’s gaze. He was still at the table selecting pastels from a tray, but now and then he stopped to look at Neville, who felt his injuries had never been more cruelly exposed than in this glaring light.

The ambivalence of the artistic response to disfigurement and ruin is well played-out in Elinor’s response to an injured patient.

He had been a remarkably handsome man; still was, on one side of his face. If anything, his injuries threw the beauty of his remaining features into sharper relief. He reminded her of some of the ‘fragments’ they used to draw at the Slade where so often a chipped nose or broken lip seemed to give the face a poignancy that the undamaged original might have lacked. It disturbed her, this aesthetic response to wounds that should have inspired nothing but pity.

This marks the beginning of a more sophisticated response both to the war and to artistic practice on the part of Elinor. So what is it that fails to satisfy? Part of the problem may well be that this is well-trodden ground for Barker and, indeed, for many others. She has spoken of the First World War as our myth, our Illiad: a set of events which can be endlessly reinterpreted and represented as a means of exploring human nature and action. This is a valid position, as the wealth of good Great War literature attests, but new ground should be broken each time and supported by the particular characters and narrative presented, and this is where Toby’s Room becomes unsatisfying. As a study of differing reactions to service, grief, and injury, Toby’s Room is fairly compelling, particularly in Neville’s brooding and occasionally explosive recuperation, whose morphine dreams transport him back to the Front, and to Toby. However, the whole book feels curiously unmotivated, and the figure of Elinor is partly to blame.

The paradox of Elinor is that she so resembles her brother as to become unconvincing as a woman. She is curiously unsympathetic in her pursuit of the truth of Toby’s fate, simultaneously passive and aggressive and oddly opaque despite our access to her mind. Without the violence of the Front to fall back on – something Elinor’s political stance precludes – the normal centrifugal force of Barker’s men is missing, despite the attempt to supply that founding injury in another form in 1912.

One also has to question whether Toby’s Room works as a stand-alone novel given its oddly bracketed structure. As far I can tell it is not presented as a sequel to Life Class whose narrative, for all that I was not bowled over by it, at least had the virtue of cohesion and a quality of concentration.  Toby’s Room is dark, disturbing, and, in certain respects, acutely insightful; and yet it refuses to cohere as it should in order for its aims to be fulfilled. In that sense it is frustrating, but certain passages stand out as impressive, in particular those about art: those focused on the artists are less compelling in general, and suffer from a lack of weight. This is a good book, but it’s not the return to form I was hoping for. Essentially, the problem is that it’s all been done before. It’s no Regeneration.