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NW

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Overview

A new novel from Zadie Smith, set in Northwest London

 

Somewhere in Northwest London stands Caldwell housing estate, relic of 70s urban planning. Five identical blocks, deliberately named: Hobbes, Smith, Bentham, Locke, and Russell. If you grew up here, the plan was to get out and get on, to something bigger, better. Thirty years later ex-Caldwell kids Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan have all made it out, with varying degrees of ...

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NW

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Overview

A new novel from Zadie Smith, set in Northwest London

 

Somewhere in Northwest London stands Caldwell housing estate, relic of 70s urban planning. Five identical blocks, deliberately named: Hobbes, Smith, Bentham, Locke, and Russell. If you grew up here, the plan was to get out and get on, to something bigger, better. Thirty years later ex-Caldwell kids Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan have all made it out, with varying degrees of success—whatever that means. Living only streets apart, they occupy separate worlds and navigate an atomized city where few wish to be their neighbor’s keeper. Then one April afternoon a stranger comes to Leah’s door seeking help, disturbing the peace, and forcing Leah out of her isolation. . . .

 

From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, in this delicate, devastating novel of encounters, the main streets hide the back alleys, and taking the high road can sometimes lead to a dead end. Zadie Smith’s NW brilliantly depicts the modern urban zone—familiar to city dwellers everywhere—in a tragicomic novel as mercurial as the city itself.

One of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

British author Zadie Smith was relatively unknown in America when Barnes & Noble booksellers made her debut book White Teeth a 2000 Discover selection. (The fiction earned a place subsequently on Time's list of the 100 Best English Novels of the modern period.) In hardcover, this novel about four young Londoners trying to make their way in the world received glowing reviews and solid sales everywhere; now it's in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

The New York Times Book Review
Smith's previous novels have been exuberantly plotted, and were resolved in a highly "novelistic" way. This book is much more tentative and touching in its conclusions. In an essay called "Two Paths for the Novel," Smith has challenged what she calls the unexamined credos upon which realism is built: "the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self." None of these things make sense on the streets of northwest London. NW represents a deliberate undoing; an unpacking of Smith's abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be. The result is that rare thing, a book that is radical and passionate and real.
—Anne Enright
Publishers Weekly
The reader first meets Leah Hanwell at her most vulnerable (some might say gullible): at home, when the doorbell rings and in tumbles a desperate, unknown but not unfamiliar woman, pleading for money, which Leah provides. Although this incident soon fades into an awkward anecdote shared later at awkward gatherings, it introduces the framework of Smith's (White Teeth) excellent and captivating new novel, in which the lines dividing neighbors from strangers are not always clear or permanent. The book takes place in NW London, where characters intersect and circumvent one another's lives and, in the process, expose their ethnic distinctions and class transformations, their relationships and their secrets. Leah's childhood best friend Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake) eventually becomes the primary focus and the contrast between the two women allows for some of the book's most compelling insights, namely the inevitability of vs. the disinterest in becoming a mother, which Natalie has done and Leah decisively has not. The book's middle section introduces Felix Cooper, a friend of neither woman, but whose fate will affect them both. Smith's masterful ability to suspend all these bits and parts in the amber which is London refracts light, history, and the humane beauty of seeing everything at once. Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge and White. (Sept. 4)
Praise
A 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2012

One of TIME's Top 10 Fiction Books of 2012

One of The Wall Street Journal's Best 10 Fiction Books of 2012

A New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of 2012

"This is a book in which you never know how things will come together or what will happen next... NW represents a deliberate undoing; an unpacking of Smith’s abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be. The result is that rare thing, a book that is radical and passionate and real."
—Anne Enright, The New York Times Book Review

"A boldly Joycean appropriation, fortunately not so difficult of entry as its great model... Like Zadie Smith’s much-acclaimed predecessor White Teeth (2000), NW is an urban epic."
—Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books

"Endlessly fascinating... remarkable. ...The impression of Smith's casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you've felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate."
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

"Innovative and moving... This is a rich novel, as crammed with voices and layered with history and pop culture as is London itself. Smith’s flair for dialogue reaches a new height in NW, as she conveys the rhythms and diction of a variety of Londoners with wit and acuity. The story of what happens inside a person when she rises above the situation she was born into was of interest to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, among countless other novelists. Zadie Smith has delivered her contribution to this literary tradition with aplomb."
Dallas Morning News

"Smith has never been a writer who travels directly from A to B... Smith is not interested in exploring the unbroken line of cause and effect. What NW does offer, in abundance, is the sense of being plunged with great immediacy into the lives of these characters and their neighborhood. How wonderful to have a new version of London to explore."
Boston Globe

"If our everyday world suddenly turns dark, zany and lyrically weird one day, it's probably because Zadie Smith has learned how to control us all. In NW, Ms. Smith takes her courageous forays into the vernacular to new heights, using perspectives that are perhaps more native to her but in a form that feels brand new."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Zadie Smith is not merely one of Britain's finest younger writers, but also one of the English-speaking world's best chroniclers of race, class, and identity in urban confines. Smith remains fearless, and there are moments that astonish. Her ambition and talent continue to awe."
Philadelphia Inquirer

"[NW is] a real sign of how Smith has developed and grown. It is a terrific novel: deeply ambitious, an attempt to use literature as a kind of excavation, while at the same time remaining intensely readable, intensely human, a portrait of the way we live."
Los Angeles Times

"A marvelously accomplished work, perhaps her most polished yet."
—Laura Miller, Salon

"A triumph... As Smith threads together her characters' inner and outer worlds, every sentence sings."
The Guardian

"Smith's fiction has never been this deadly, direct, or economical... Where gifts are concerned, Smith is generous with hers; she writes, one feels, with our pleasure in mind... NW is Zadie Smith’s riskiest, meanest, most political and deeply felt book—but it all feels so effortless. She dazzles."
—Parul Sehgal, Bookforum

"NW offers a nuanced, disturbing exploration of the boundaries, some porous, some impenetrable, between people living cheek by jowl in urban centers where the widening gap between haves and have-nots has created chasms into which we're all in danger of falling."
—NPR.org

"A powerful portrait of class and identity in multicultural London. "
Entertainment Weekly

"One of the most interesting portrayals of 30- something womanhood that I've come across in a long time. For other readers, Smith's brilliant eye and idiosyncratic ear should be ample enticement."
Bloomberg News

"A master class in freestyle fiction writing. Smith mashes up voices and vignettes, poetry and instant messaging, bedroom preferences and murder, and keeps it all from collapsing into incoherent mush with deft, dry wit. Smith defines characters worth reading."
Newsday

"In NW, Smith offers a robust novel bursting with life: a timely exploration of money, morals, class and authenticity that asks if we are ever truly the sole authors of our own fate."
BookPage

From the Publisher
A 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award FinalistOne of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2012One of TIME's Top 10 Fiction Books of 2012One of The Wall Street Journal's Best 10 Fiction Books of 2012A New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of 2012"This is a book in which you never know how things will come together or what will happen next... NW represents a deliberate undoing; an unpacking of Smith’s abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be. The result is that rare thing, a book that is radical and passionate and real." —Anne Enright, The New York Times Book Review"A boldly Joycean appropriation, fortunately not so difficult of entry as its great model... Like Zadie Smith’s much-acclaimed predecessor White Teeth (2000), NW is an urban epic." —Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books"Endlessly fascinating... remarkable. ...The impression of Smith's casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you've felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate." —Ron Charles, The Washington Post"Innovative and moving... This is a rich novel, as crammed with voices and layered with history and pop culture as is London itself. Smith’s flair for dialogue reaches a new height in NW, as she conveys the rhythms and diction of a variety of Londoners with wit and acuity. The story of what happens inside a person when she rises above the situation she was born into was of interest to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, among countless other novelists. Zadie Smith has delivered her contribution to this literary tradition with aplomb." —Dallas Morning News"Smith has never been a writer who travels directly from A to B... Smith is not interested in exploring the unbroken line of cause and effect. What NW does offer, in abundance, is the sense of being plunged with great immediacy into the lives of these characters and their neighborhood. How wonderful to have a new version of London to explore." —Boston Globe"If our everyday world suddenly turns dark, zany and lyrically weird one day, it's probably because Zadie Smith has learned how to control us all. In NW, Ms. Smith takes her courageous forays into the vernacular to new heights, using perspectives that are perhaps more native to her but in a form that feels brand new." —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette"Zadie Smith is not merely one of Britain's finest younger writers, but also one of the English-speaking world's best chroniclers of race, class, and identity in urban confines. Smith remains fearless, and there are moments that astonish. Her ambition and talent continue to awe." —Philadelphia Inquirer"[NW is] a real sign of how Smith has developed and grown. It is a terrific novel: deeply ambitious, an attempt to use literature as a kind of excavation, while at the same time remaining intensely readable, intensely human, a portrait of the way we live." —Los Angeles Times "A marvelously accomplished work, perhaps her most polished yet." —Laura Miller, Salon"A triumph... As Smith threads together her characters' inner and outer worlds, every sentence sings." —The Guardian"Smith's fiction has never been this deadly, direct, or economical... Where gifts are concerned, Smith is generous with hers; she writes, one feels, with our pleasure in mind... NW is Zadie Smith’s riskiest, meanest, most political and deeply felt book—but it all feels so effortless. She dazzles." —Parul Sehgal, Bookforum "NW offers a nuanced, disturbing exploration of the boundaries, some porous, some impenetrable, between people living cheek by jowl in urban centers where the widening gap between haves and have-nots has created chasms into which we're all in danger of falling." —NPR.org"A powerful portrait of class and identity in multicultural London. " —Entertainment Weekly"One of the most interesting portrayals of 30- something womanhood that I've come across in a long time. For other readers, Smith's brilliant eye and idiosyncratic ear should be ample enticement." —Bloomberg News"A master class in freestyle fiction writing. Smith mashes up voices and vignettes, poetry and instant messaging, bedroom preferences and murder, and keeps it all from collapsing into incoherent mush with deft, dry wit. Smith defines characters worth reading." —Newsday"In NW, Smith offers a robust novel bursting with life: a timely exploration of money, morals, class and authenticity that asks if we are ever truly the sole authors of our own fate." —BookPage
Library Journal
Relating the story of four people in North West London, Smith articulates important issues of race and class, but what matters most is her distinctive narrative voice. In numbered, run-on chapters that occasionally turn to aphorism, memo, and even poetry, Smith shows us how to write for the 21st century, when the online environment has changed our way of thinking, that makes other books sound ordinary. An aesthetic and emotional knockout. (LJ 9/15/12)—Barbara Hoffert

(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal
It's been seven years since Smith last published a novel, so we're all really chaffing to read this one. NW stands for northwest, that is, northwest London, where a group of friends living on an estate make their way through school and on to adulthood, staying more or less true to their ideals.
Kirkus Reviews
A wildly ambitious jigsaw puzzle of a novel, one that shuffles pieces of chronology, identity, ethnicity and tone, undermining cohesion and narrative momentum as it attempts to encompass a London neighborhood that is both fixed and fluid. Many of Smith's strengths as a writer are journalistic--a keen eye for significant detail, ear for speech inflections, appreciation for cultural signifiers and distinctions--as she demonstrated in her previous collection (Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, 2009). Yet, she first earned renown as a novelist with her breakthrough debut (White Teeth, 2000), and her fourth novel (first in six years) finds her challenging herself and the reader like never before. The title refers to "North West London, a dinky part of it you've never heard of called Willesden, and...you'd be wrong to dismiss it actually because actually it's very interesting, very ‘diverse.' Lord, what a word." What initially seems to be a comedy of manners, involving two women who have been lifelong friends but now feel a distance in the disparity of their social standing (the one raised poorer by a Caribbean mother has done far better than the middle-class Caucasian), ultimately turns darker with abortion, murder, drug addiction and the possibility of a suicide. Much of the drama pivots on chance encounters (or fate?), making the plot difficult to summarize and even a protagonist hard to pinpoint. Each of the book's parts also has a very different structure, ranging from very short chapters to an extended narrative interlude to numbered sections that might be as short as a paragraph or a page. The pivotal figure in the novel goes by two different names and has no fixed identity (other than her professional achievement as a barrister), and she doesn't begin to tell the back story that dominates the novel's second half until the first half concludes (it highlights different characters). "At some point we became aware of being ‘modern,' of changing fast," interjects the author, who has written a novel so modern that nothing flows or fits together in the conventional sense, but whose voice remains so engaging and insights so incisive that fans will persevere to make of it what they will. Smith takes big risks here, but some might need to read this twice before all the pieces fit together, and more conventionally minded readers might abandon it in frustration.
The Washington Post
…a complicated novel that's endlessly fascinating…The impression of Smith's casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you've felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate. While her own voice can seem crisp and clinical, it's tinged with irony, and her dialogue ripples off the page in full stereo…At times, reading NW is like running past a fence, catching only strips of light from the scene on the other side. Smith makes no accommodation for the distracted reader—or even the reader who demands a clear itinerary. But if you're willing to let it work on you, to hear all these voices and allow the details to come into focus when Smith wants them to, you'll be privy to an extraordinary vision of our age.
—Ron Charles
The Barnes & Noble Review

NW is set in the same city as was White Teeth, the novel that made Zadie Smith famous in her early twenties. But while the characters in both books live in Smith's native London, they occupy different universes.

White Teeth was replete with characters whose intersections were engineered for maximum impact: gung-ho Jehovah's Witnesses, members of an end-of-the-world cult, cutting-edge geneticists, animal rights activists, and devotees of a radical Muslim brotherhood whose ridiculous acronym, KEVIN (for Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation), seemed calculated chiefly to amuse, but toward what end it wasn't clear. The story was full of punch lines and clever, manic plots that culminated in an epic clash at a press conference. White Teeth and Smith's subsequent novels were often astonishingly observant about race, class, and the identity confusion that defines (or blurs) the lives of immigrants, but the characters remained, for all their color and verve, the playthings of her satirical wit. NW lies so far in the other direction that it resists being summarized at all. The climax isn't a hyperkinetic denouement, but a foot journey through London one afternoon as two characters get high, reminisce, and recriminate. Yet NW, essentially a collection of character studies, accumulates enormous power.

In the northwest section of present-day London live four people who came of age in the fictional council estate of Caldwell, a section of government housing that is slowly giving way to private ownership. Leah, a one-time party girl of Irish heritage, works in a soul-sapping government office and tries to foil her West African husband's efforts to get her pregnant. Felix, a former drug addict, is looking to turn the corner now that he's found the right woman. Nathan, a thug who runs a panhandling and drug operation, was once a young boy with potential. And then there's the one who made good, Natalie, who left behind what she viewed as the unserious name of her girlhood (Keisha) to become a lawyer and a wealthy man's wife.

Smith's skillful dissections of the societal tensions that hum through London will be familiar to readers of her other work. But the relentless excavation of her characters' domestic lives feels new and startling. Describing a brunch at which two couples amiably chat about current events that don't touch their lives in any way, Smith narrows the lens: "Only the private realm existed now. Work and home. Marriage and children. Now they only wanted to return to their own flats and live the real life of domestic conversation and television and baths and lunch and dinner. Brunch was outside the private realm, but not by much — it was just the other side of the border. But even brunch was too far from home. Brunch didn't really exist."

The most fascinating character in the book is Natalie Blake, one of that brunch foursome, who has become a barrister with a lovely family, a lovely husband, and a lovely home. She's grown distant from her family, ensconced in poverty and its attendant mindsets, and from her childhood friend Leah. In NW, gentrification is a thing that happens to individuals as well as to neighborhoods. And in both cases, the results aren't always pretty. Smith's intent isn't to flay Natalie for acting white, though others lob the word "coconut" in her direction. Natalie is a hollow receptacle of achievement, and one of the things that Smith does brilliantly is to render that achievement both admirable and awful.

Natalie's perfect-on-the-outside, inert-on-the-inside existence can't be dismissed as simply bourgie because it's hard to know what the alternative ought to be. Living knocked up in her childhood bedroom, like her older sister? Natalie knows that something is amiss. At times, she is reminiscent of the suicidal character in David Foster Wallace's short story "Good Old Neon" who has known all his life that he's a fraud. Natalie's need to fill herself eventually drives her to do something inexplicable that puts at risk the life she has so consciously constructed.

NW is difficult to get into. Smith is playing with form and language more freely than she has in her other novels. The first section, which is devoted to Leah, is the most experimental, featuring stream-of-consciousness passages, fragmentary sentences, and squibs of dialogue that sometimes become unmoored from their speakers. These are admirable exercises but keep readers at a remove, exaggerating Leah's dithering and aimlessness.

It's only later, when Smith retraces the girlish friendship between Leah and Natalie (née Keisha), that Leah comes into sharper focus. The sometimes- whimsical, sometimes-loaded numbered subheadings that sprinkle this long central section frame revealing vignettes. "Permission to enter" heads a passage in which Keisha's mother discovers a vibrator that Leah has given her. "And the scales fell from her eyes" titles a single paragraph in which Keisha's hard-studying boyfriend dismisses Leah's environmental activism as a "luxury." "Some observations concerning television" describes a scene in which the successful, adult Natalie and her mother watch a reality television show about the poor that captures the chasm that has opened between them. Together these labeled fragments create a mosaic portrait of both Natalie and Leah while reminding us of the gaps between, of how much we don't know about them.

White Teeth was a millennium baby. In the twelve years since its publication, Smith has written one largely forgettable novel (The Autograph Man) and one marvelous campus satire (On Beauty). She's also become one of the best critics working today, producing literary, cultural, and film criticism that is incisive, skeptical, and generous all at once. Is she a better essayist than she is a novelist? Before reading NW, my answer was yes. Now she's forcing us to evaluate her again, just as she has asked us to reevaluate everything from the varying vocal registers of Barack Obama to the role of Facebook in our lives. Unlike her early novels, her criticism exhibits an admirable restraint. Because she's not spending all her time entrenching herself in a hard-and-fast position, she's able to see around corners where others can't. Given the evidence of NW, she's a rare breed: a novelist whose work as a critic has improved her fiction. The result is this remarkable book.

Sarah L. Courteau is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.

Reviewer: Sarah L. Courteau

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203978
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/4/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Zadie  Smith

ZADIE SMITH was born in Northwest London in 1975. She is the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and the essay collection Changing My Mind.

Biography

The debut wunderkind of the new millennium was Zadie Smith, who finished her manuscript for White Teeth as a college student in Cambridge, England, only to find herself sitting on a six-figure advance, an international bestseller, and an onslaught of literary praise comparing her to the likes of Charles Dickens and Salman Rushdie.

Born in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother, Smith grew up in London's poly-ethnic Willesden Green neighborhood, a backdrop she has mined with great success in stories that parse the immigrant experience and investigate overarching themes of race, class, and intergenerational ties. She attended King's College in Cambridge, submitted stories to a college anthology, and got noticed by a literary agent who wangled the deal that led to her first novel. Spanning 150 years, mixing Jamaican, English, and Bangladeshi into its characters' family trees, and focused on three clans in London, White Teeth garnered lavish praise on its publication in 2000. Notoriously critical New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani called it "...a big, splashy, populous production ... that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer." The San Francisco Chronicle pronounced it the first great novel of the new century, and Time likened Smith to Margaret Atwood and Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon.

In the midst of all the hosannas, though, one negative review stands out. A notice in the literary magazine Butterfly proclaimed: "White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old." The author of this snipe? Zadie Smith, of course! "I was very worried that if this book did well or was forced to do well by a lot of hype behind it, that I wouldn't write anything again," she explained to London's Independent in 2000

Apparently Smith seriously underestimated her accomplishment. White Teeth scooped the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and was shortlisted for a several other prestigious literary awards. Moreover, she stared down the dreaded specter of sophomore slump with her second novel, 2002's The Autograph Man, a meditation on her own celebrity that zoomed up the bestseller list, won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction, and positioned Smith for inclusion in Granta magazine's 2003 list of the 20 best young British writers -- a roster compiled once every 10 years.

Smith continues to forge fiction that gets noticed. In addition, she has edited and written introductions to anthologies that showcase the preeminent writers of her generation.

Good To Know

Smith changed her name from "Sadie" to "Zadie," "because it seemed right, exotic, different," she told the Guardian.

Smith's third novel, On Beauty takes its title from Elaine Scarry's essay "On Beauty and Being Just."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Sadie Smith (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 27, 1975
    2. Place of Birth:
      Willesden, London, England
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, King's College at Cambridge University, 1998

Read an Excerpt

1

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.

Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.

I am the sole

I am the sole author

Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages. Somewhere she has read that the gloss gives you cancer. Everyone knows it shouldn’t be this hot. Shriveled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burned paunch rests on the railing. Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century. Cruel opinion—she doesn’t share it. In marriage not everything is shared. Yellow sun high in the sky. Blue cross on a white stick, clear, definitive. What to do? Michel is at work. He is still at work.

I am the

the sole

Ash drifts into the garden below, then comes the butt, then the box. Louder than the birds and the trains and the traffic. Sole sign of sanity: a tiny device tucked in her ear. I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.

I am the sole. The sole. The sole

She unfurls her fist, lets the pencil roll. Takes her liberty. Nothing else to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting water boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.

2

Doorbell! She stumbles through the grass barefoot, sun-huddled, drowsy. The back door leads to a poky kitchen, tiled brightly in the taste of a previous tenant. The bell is not being rung. It is being held down.

In the textured glass, a body, blurred. Wrong collection of pixels to be Michel. Between her body and the door, the hallway floorboards, golden in reflected sun. This hallway can only lead to good things. Yet a woman is screaming PLEASE and crying. A woman thumps the front door with her fist. Pulling the lock aside, she finds it stops halfway, the chain pulls tight, and a little hand f lies through the gap.

– PLEASE—oh my God help me—please Miss, I live here—I live just here, please God—check, please—

Dirty nails. Waving a gas bill? Phone bill? Pushed through the opening, past the chain, so close she must draw back to focus on what she is being shown. 37 Ridley Avenue—a street on the corner of her own. This is all she reads. She has a quick vision of Michel as he would be if he were here, examining the envelope’s plastic window, checking on credentials. Michel is at work. She releases the chain.

The stranger’s knees go, she falls forward, crumpling. Girl or woman? They’re the same age: thirties, mid-way, or thereabouts. Tears shake the stranger’s little body. She pulls at her clothes and wails. Woman begging the public for witnesses. Woman in a warzone standing in the rubble of her home.

– You’re hurt?

Her hands are in her hair. Her head collides with the doorframe.

– Nah, not me, my mum—I need some help. I’ve been to every fuckin door—please. Shar—my name is Shar. I’m local. I live here. Check!

– Come in. Please. I’m Leah.

Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods. She makes quick movements with her mouth, inaudible, speaking to herself. To Leah she says

– You’re so good.

Shar’s diaphragm rises and falls, slower now. The shuddering tears wind down.

– Thank you, yeah? You’re so good.

Shar’s small hands grip the hands that support her. Shar is tiny. Her skin looks papery and dry, with patches of psoriasis on the forehead and on the jaw. The face is familiar. Leah has seen this face many times in these streets. A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names. The eyes are memorable, around the deep brown clear white is visible, above and below. An air of avidity, of consuming what she sees. Long lashes. Babies look like this. Leah smiles. The smile offered back is blank, without recognition. Sweetly crooked. Leah is only the good stranger who opened the door and did not close it again. Shar repeats: you are so good, you are so good— until the thread of pleasure that runs through that phrase (of course for Leah there is a little pleasure) is broken. Leah shakes her head. No, no, no, no.

Leah directs Shar to the kitchen. Big hands on the girl’s narrow shoulders. She watches Shar’s buttocks rise up and against her rolled-down jogging pants, the little downy dip in her back, pronounced, sweaty in the heat. The tiny waist opening out into curves. Leah is hipless, gangly like a boy. Perhaps Shar needs money. Her clothes are not clean. In the back of her right knee there is a wide tear in the nasty fabric. Dirty heels rise up out of disintegrating flip-f lops. She smells.

– Heart attack! I was asking them is she dyin? Is she dyin? Is she dyin? She goes in the ambulance—don’t get no answer do I! I got three kids that is home alone innit—I have to get hospital—what they talking about car for? I ain’t got no car! I’m saying help me—no one did a fuckin thing to help me.

Leah grips Shar’s wrist, sets her down in a chair at the kitchen table and passes over a roll of tissue. She puts her hands once more on Shar’s shoulders. Their foreheads are inches from each other.

– I understand, it’s OK. Which hospital?

– It’s like . . . I ain’t written it . . . In Middlesex or—Far, though. Don’t know eggzak’ly.

Leah squeezes Shar’s hands.

– Look, I don’t drive—but—

Checks her watch. Ten to five.

– If you wait, maybe twenty minutes? If I call him now, he can—or maybe a taxi . . .

Shar eases her hands from Leah’s. She presses her knuckles into her eyes, breathing out fully: the panic is over.

– Need to be there . . . no numbers—nothing—no money . . .

Shar tears some skin from her right thumb with her teeth. A spot of blood rises and contains itself. Leah takes Shar again by the wrist. Draws her fingers from her mouth.

– Maybe The Middlesex? Name of the hospital, not the place. Down Acton way, isn’t it?

The girl’s face is dreamy, slow. Touched, the Irish say. Possible that she’s touched.

– Yeah . . . could be . . . yeah, no, yeah that’s it. The Middlesex. That’s it.

Leah straightens up, takes a phone from her back pocket and dials.

– I’LL COME BY TOMORROW.

Leah nods and Shar continues, making no concession for the phone call.

– PAY YOU BACK. GET MY CHEQUE TOMORROW, YEAH?

Leah keeps her phone to her ear, smiles and nods, gives her address. She mimes a cup of tea. But Shar is looking at the apple blossom. She wipes tears from her face with the fabric of her grubby t-shirt. Her belly-button is a tight knot f lush with her stomach, a button sewn in a divan. Leah recites her own phone number.

– Done.

She turns to the sideboard, picks up the kettle with her free hand, fumbling it because she expected it to be empty. A little water spills. She replaces the kettle on its stand, and remains where she is, her back to her guest. There is no natural place to sit or stand. In front of her, on the long windowsill that stretches the room, some of the things of her life—photos, knick-knacks, some of Dad’s ashes, vases, plants, herbs. In the window’s reflection Shar is bringing her little feet up to the seat of her chair, holding her ankles. The emergency was less awkward, more natural than this. This is not the country for making a stranger tea. They smile at each other in the glass. There is goodwill. There is nothing to say.

– I’ll get cups.

Leah is naming all her actions. She opens the cupboard. It is full of cups; cups on cups on cups.

– Nice place.

Leah turns too quickly, makes irrelevant motions with her hands.

– Not ours—we rent—ours is just this—there’s two flats upstairs. Shared garden. It’s council, so . . .

Leah pours out the tea as Shar looks around. Bottom lip out, head nodding gently. Appreciative, like an estate agent. Now she comes to Leah. What’s to see? Wrinkled checked flannel shirt, raggedy jean shorts, freckled legs, bare feet—someone absurd, maybe, a slacker, a lady of leisure. Leah crosses her arms across her abdomen.

– Nice for council. Lot of bedrooms and that?

The lip stays low. It slurs her speech a little. Something is wrong with Shar’s face, Leah notices, and is embarrassed by noticing, and looks away.

– Two. The second’s a box. We sort of use it as . . .

Shar meanwhile burrows for something else entirely; she’s slower than Leah, but she’s there now, they’re in the same place. She points her finger in Leah’s face.

– Wait—you went Brayton?

She bounces on her chair. Elated. But this must be wrong.

– I swear when you was on the phone I was thinking: I know you. You went Brayton!

Leah perches her backside on the counter and gives her dates. Shar is impatient with chronology. She wants to know if Leah remembers when the science wing flooded, the time Jake Fowler had his head placed in a vise. In relation to these coordinates, like moon landings and the deaths of presidents, they position their own times.

– Two years below you, innit. What’s your name again?

Leah struggles with the stiff lid of a biscuit tin.

– Leah. Hanwell.

– Leah. You went Brayton. Still see anyone?

Leah lists her names, with their potted biographies. Shar beats a rhythm on the table-top with her fingers.

– Have you been married long?

– Too long.

– Do you want me to call someone? Your husband?

– Nah . . . nah . . . he’s over there. Ain’t seen him in two years. Abusive. Violent. Had issues. Had a lot of problems, in his head and that. Broke my arm, broke my collarbone, broke my knee, broke my fuckin face. Tell you the truth—

The next is said in a light aside, with a little hiccupping laugh, and is incomprehensible.

– Used to rape me and everything . . . it was crazy. Oh well.

Shar slides off her chair and walks toward the back door. Looks out on the garden, the parched yellow lawn.

– I’m so sorry.

– Ain’t your fault! Is what it is.

The feeling of feeling absurd. Leah puts her hands in her pockets. The kettle clicks.

– Truthfully, Layer, I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. It’s been hard. But. Got away, you know? I’m alive. Three kids! Youngest is seven. So, good came, you get me?

Leah nods at the kettle.

– Got kids?

– No. A dog, Olive. She’s at my mate Nat’s house right now. Natalie Blake? Actually in school she was Keisha. Natalie De Angelis now. In my year. Used to have a big afro puff like—

Leah mimes an atomic mushroom behind her own head. Shar frowns.

– Yeah. Up herself. Coconut. Thought she was all that.

A look of blank contempt passes over Shar’s face. Leah talks into it.

– She’s got kids. Lives just over there, in the posh bit, on the park. She’s a lawyer now. Barrister. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. They’ve two kids. The kids love Olive, the dog’s called Olive.

She is just saying sentences, one after the other, they don’t stop.

– I’m pregnant, actually.

Shar leans against the glass of the door. Closes one eye, focusing on Leah’s stomach.

– Oh it’s early. Very. Actually I found out this morning.

Actually actually actually. Shar takes the revelation in her stride.

– Boy?

– No, I mean—I haven’t got that far.

Leah blushes not having intended to speak of this delicate, unfinished thing.

– Does your mans know?

– I took the test this morning. Then you came.

– Pray for a girl. Boys are hell.

Shar has a dark look. She grins satanically. Around each tooth the gum is black. She walks back to Leah and presses her hands flat against Leah’s stomach.

– Let me feel. I can tell things. Don’t matter how early. Come here. Not gonna hurt you. It’s like a gift. My mum was the same way. Come here.

She reaches for Leah and pulls her forward. Leah lets her. Shar places her hands back where they were.

– Gonna be a girl, definite. Scorpio, too, proper trouble. A runner.

Leah laughs. She feels a heat rising between the girl’s sweaty hands and her own clammy stomach.

– Like an athlete?

– Nah . . . the kind who runs away. You’ll need one eye on her, all the time.

Shar’s hands drop, her face glazes over once more with boredom. She starts talking of things. All things are equal. Leah or tea or rape or bedroom or heart attack or school or who had a baby.

– That school. . . . it was rubbish but them people who went there. . . . quite a few people did all right, didn’t they? Like, Calvin—remember Calvin?

Leah pours out the tea, nodding fiercely. She does not remember Calvin.

– He’s got a gym on the Finchley Road.

Leah spins her spoon in her tea, a drink she never takes, especially in this weather. She has pressed the bag too hard. The leaves break their borders and swarm.

– Not running it—owns it. I go past there sometimes. Never thought little Calvin would get his shit together—he was always with Jermaine and Louie and Michael. Them lot was trouble . . . I don’t see none of them. Don’t need the drama. Still see Nathan Bogle. Used to see Tommy and James Haven but I aint seen them recent. Not for time.

Shar keeps talking. The kitchen slants and Leah steadies herself with a hand to the sideboard.

– Sorry, what?

Shar frowns, she speaks round the lit fag in her mouth.

– I said, can I have that tea?

Together they look like old friends on a winter’s night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton.

– I used to know . . . I mean . . .

Leah presses on with this phony hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn’t interested, she’s knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.

– Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You’re better now innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.

Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.

– Done well, though. How come you aint at work? What d’you do again?

Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak.

– Phoned in sick. I wasn’t feeling good. It’s sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, nonprofits—small local organizations in the community that need . . .

They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighborly sympathy.

– Silly fat bitch.

Leah traces a knight’s move from the girl with her finger. Two floors up, one window across.

– I was born just there.

From there to here, a journey longer than it looks. For a second, this local detail holds Shar’s interest. Then she looks away, ashing her cigarette on the kitchen floor, though the door is open and the grass only a foot away. She is slow, maybe, and possibly clumsy; or she is traumatized, or distracted.

– Done well. Living right. Probably got a lot of friends, out on a Friday, clubbing, all that.

– Not really.

Shar blows a short burst of smoke out of her mouth, and makes a rueful sort of sound, nodding her head over and over.

– Proper snobby, this street. You the only one let me in. Rest of them wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire.

– I’ve got to go upstairs. Get some money for this cab.

Leah has money in her pocket. Upstairs she walks into the nearest room, the toilet, closes the door, sits on the floor and cries. With her foot she reaches over and knocks the toilet paper off its perch. She is rolling it toward her when the doorbell goes.

– DOOR! DOOR! WILL I?

Leah stands, tries to wash away the redness in the tiny sink. She finds Shar in the hallway, in front of a shelf filled with books from college, drawing her finger along the spines.

– You read all these?

– No, not really. No time nowadays.

Leah takes the key from where it sits on the middle shelf and opens the front door. Nothing makes sense. The driver who stands by the gate makes a gesture she doesn’t understand, points to the other end of the street and starts walking. Shar follows. Leah follows. Leah is growing into a new meekness.

– How much do you need?

There is a shade of pity in Shar’s face.

– Twenty? Thirty . . . is safe.

She smokes without hands, squeezing the vapor out of a corner of her mouth.

The manic froth of cherry blossom. Through a corridor of pink, Michel appears, walking up the street, on the other side. Too hot— his face is soaked. The little towel he keeps for days like this pokes from his bag. Leah raises a finger up in the air, a request for him to stay where he is. She points to Shar, though Shar is hidden by the car. Michel is short-sighted; he squints in their direction, stops, smiles tensely, takes his jacket off, throws it over his arm. Leah can see him plucking at his t-shirt, trying to shed the the remnants of his day: many tiny hairs, clippings from strangers, some blonde, some brown.

– Who that?

– Michel, my husband.

– Girl’s name?

– French.

– Nice looking, innit—nice looking babies!

Shar winks: a grotesque compression of one side of her face. Shar drops her cigarette and gets in the car, leaving the door open. The money remains in Leah’s hand.

– He local? Seen him about.

– He works in the hairdressers, by the station? From Marseilles—he’s French. Been here forever.

– African, though.

– Originally. Look—do you want me to come with you?

Shar says nothing for a moment. Then she steps out of the car and reaches up to Leah’s face with both hands.

– You’re a really good person. I was meant to come to your door. Seriously! You’re a spiritual person. There’s something spiritual inside you.

Leah grips Shar’s little hand tight and submits to a kiss. Shar’s mouth is slightly open on Leah’s cheek for thank and now closes with you. In reply, Leah says something she has never said in her life: God bless you. They pull apart—Shar backs away awkwardly, and turns toward the car, almost gone. Leah presses the money into Shar’s hand with defiance. But already the grandeur of experience threatens to f latten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder, nor a rape. Nothing survives its telling.

– Mental weather.

Shar uses her scarf to blot the sweat on her face, and will not look at Leah.

– Come by tomorrow. Pay you back. Swear to God, yeah? Thanks, seriously. You saved me today.

Leah shrugs.

– Nah don’t be like that, I swear—I’ll be there, serious.

– I just hope she’s OK. Your mum.

– Tomorrow, yeah? Thank you!

The door closes. The car pulls off.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2012

    Very interesting.

    I liked this book. The slang London references were sometimes daunting for a Yankee, but I could usually figure them out from the text. Very clever that way Zadie brought the stories together and I very much liked the ending. It was well written and full of cultural and recent event references. Worth a read.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Fab writing style, eh story

    “NW” by Zadie Smith was . . . different. Smith’s writing style was unique, and varied depending on what section of the book you are reading.

    The book follows three individuals, telling their stories of their lives, woes, and troubles in NW corner of the same city. The stories are separate, but have similar notes in them, and are interconnected in some ways.

    But I’m going to be honest, I just didn’t get it fully. I understood each person’s difficulties but not how it was wrapped up together in the end. The ending just left me confused.

    So, if you are a super literary type, then you might enjoy the writing style and get more out of the novel than I did. I’ll try to read another Zadie Smith, but I wouldn’t really recommend this tough-to-read novel to the masses.

    But while I was seeing if Smith had a website, I found this interesting tidbit: Apparently, Jay-Z bought Zadie Smith a fish sandwich.

    What book have you read recently that just left you stumped?

    Thanks for reading,

    Rebecca @ Love at First Book

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2012

    some folk like a particular type of music...while others enjoy m

    some folk like a particular type of music...while others enjoy music in whatever form it comes..that's how this book was...even when i wanted to shut it and not read any more...i kept listening until i could hear zadie smith making music....at times i could hum along...at other times i was an eager student..needing to learn something new...inevitably, all the words and notes came clear at the end..."Billy Preston: Will It Go Around In Circles?"...will it fly high like a bird up in the sky....

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2012

    Painful

    I like smith and enjoyed White Teeth. This novel was painful to get through, and trust me, I kept trying. The characters just are not likable enough for the reader to care

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2012

    Awesome

    Super good book

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 14, 2012

    worst book this year

    There are books that maybe I don't like, style, subject etc. This was a subject I was looking forward to reading about. It's beyond me why B&N recommended it.
    Absolute trash!!!

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2012

    Worst

    Ridiculus writing, cant see how she got it published

    0 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2012

    Pretty great.

    Pretty great.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted November 10, 2013

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