Review by Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick
Zadie Smith has been a literary darling since her debut novel, White Teeth, was released in 2000. She was only in her early 20s at the time. Perhaps that’s why, despite glowing recommendations from friends, I’ve avoided her until now; at 23 and without a single literary agent banging down my door, I’m too jealous of her success to become a fan. (I am also petty and disillusioned and extremely self-aware.) Recently, and with much initial reluctance, however, I finally picked up my first Smith novel. I settled on NW for no other reason than that my library didn’t have White Teeth (it had probably already been checked out by someone less stubborn than I).
NW looks at the lives of three Londoners: childhood best friends Leah and Natalie, and a young man named Felix. As the novel progresses, we are pulled into the quiet desperation that haunts each of the characters, watching as they try and fail to take control over their lives. This is not a novel about plot and action as much as it is about reaction—how Smith’s characters attempt to live in a world where nothing seems to fit them. The characters are constantly throwing themselves against walls, trying to free themselves from the confines placed on them by those who claim to love them the most. It is a novel about change, either the longing or inability to do so, and being denied at every turn.
This is not a novel about characters, not really. They’re there, and they’re important and developed and heartbreaking, but Smith doesn’t always seem to be really talking about them. The novel, to me, is about time, and what it means to be a woman trapped in time:
“If it was not quite possible to feel happy for him it was because the arrangement was timeless – it did not come bound by the construction of time – and this in turn was the consequence of a crucial detail: no women were included within the scheme. Women come bearing time. Natalie had brought time into the house.”
In each of the three sections of the novel, we are given a woman desperate to escape the timetable that society has created for her. Leah is constantly reminded by her mother and husband that she is getting older, and their shared desperation for her to have a child ultimately drives her into a mini-breakdown. She becomes obsessed with an old classmate who scams her out of money with a sob story about her injured mother, and ultimately aborts the child her husband wants so badly. Natalie, Leah’s childhood friend, is outwardly more put together with a loving husband, two children, and a thriving law practice. Yet between her strained relationship with her family and her secret responses to couples seeking threesomes online, Natalie is unable to adopt the perfect image of a successful woman in her thirties. Eventually, both women crack under the weight of time, failures in the eyes of a world that has a schedule to keep.
The character that most embodies this struggle against the clock isn’t Leah or Natalie, however, but rather Annie, an old lover of Felix’s. “Old” is the key word; Annie is a beautiful woman raging against the dying light of her youth, replaced by Felix’s younger girlfriend. Unable to stop the flow of time, she turns to sex, powders, and vodka to distract herself from her mortality. Felix pities her and her lifestyle, believing that she’s pining for him and unable to grow and clean up, as he’s doing. But he’s projecting his own anxieties onto her, and he’s wrong, as Annie points out:
“‘You know, Felix…not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire. And when it’s time for me to go I fully intend to roll off my one-person dinghy into the flames and be consumed. I’m not afraid! I’ve never been afraid. Most people are, you know. But I’m not like most people.’”
Annie is what Natalie and Leah could be, if they continue down the roads they’re on. But is she a cautionary tale or a Bodhisattva? We only see her through Felix’s eyes, interestingly the only male perspective we’re given in the novel. Annie is a threat to time, supposedly the realm of the feminine. She dares to question convention, to embrace her “river of fire” rather than to become the woman society wants her to be. Felix desires her, but he’s scared of her, just as Leah’s and Natalie’s husbands are wary of them. Men in the novel fear and lash out against what they can’t control. Their love becomes chains that bind the female characters to a conventional life. But to break free, the women must abandon that love, an equally terrifying proposition. We do not know if a happy ending is possible in the world Smith creates, or whether “less unhappy” is the best her characters can hope for.
Zadie Smith is an English novelist, essayist, and short story writer. As of 2012, she has published four novels, all of which have received substantial critical praise. In 2003, she was included on Granta’s list of 20 best young authors, and was also included in the 2013 list. She joined New York University’s Creative Writing Program as a tenured professor on 1 September 2010. Smith has won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and her novel White Teeth was included in Time magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list.