by Zadie Smith
Seen in am independent bookshop in Sherborne, where I bought a couple of children’s books and gave myself more time to consider whether to buy this.
It caught my eye again, a couple of weeks later, in Crediton Community Bookshop and I decided to buy it this time. (On the rare occasions when I buy a new hardcopy book, rather than borrowing from the library, buying secondhand or downloading an electronic version, I always try to patronise small local bookshops rather than the big stores or online sellers.)
I had read the first three of Smith’s novels soon after they were published. I enjoyed the freshness of White Teeth; didn’t make much of The Autograph Man; absolutely loved On Beauty. Her fourth, NW, somehow passed me by. So it was a treat to return to this author after a twelve-year absence. Her writing style is super-confident and much more mature – unsurprisingly – than in her earlier novels. The protagonists hail from a similar North London background to Smith’s own, and are born in 1975, as she was. The narrator’s mother was born in Jamaica, as was the author’s.
But the story is imaginative and intricate. Smith blends memories of a childhood immersed in learning dancing and watching old dance movies with the career of a personal assistant to a superstar in the music world, interweaving experiences in a West African village. Perhaps it is a bit too much. Would the story stand without the West African element? Probably yes, but it is so much more exciting with this strand of the story.
The narrator is never given a name. Through her eyes, we get to know her slightly unstable friend Tracey intimately, as well as the music star Aimee and her various acolytes. I feel sad for the narrator, whose own life and needs seem to be entirely buried beneath the demanding and much more flamboyant people she associates with. That said, she does not seem to be the most likeable person. She floats on the surface of life, rather than engaging with it, and at the end of the novel she seems to have nothing to show for her life so far.
I think this is a book that will live with me for a while. I read it quickly but quite intensely. Maybe I will even read it again. Or perhaps revisit White Teeth or On Beauty, which I think are still on my bookshelves (a sign that I appreciate them!).