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Zadie in Metroland

September 12, 2013 44 comments

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012.

Let’s say it right away, I couldn’t finish that one. I tried, asked Twitter followers to cheer me up and convince me to finish it. Thanks everyone for the replies and the links to reviews. I soldiered on and lost the war. I still wonder what went wrong with that book or more precisely, why the fact I couldn’t stand Leah, one of the main female characters and that I couldn’t picture her French thirty-something husband named Michel was enough to make me abandon the book.

Since it’s hard to summarise a book you haven’t finished, here is the blurb from Amazon:

Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Fox, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.

Smith_NWSure, the style and the description of the city are marvellous. I could see that even if I didn’t even finish the first part of the novel. Zadie Smith’s style is brilliant and vibrant, really. No doubt about this. She captures very well the fleeting sensations one has when walking in a city. She describes the environment in an impressionist way which felt close to reality. Her pace changes, she plays with the layout, inserts a chapter 37 after the seventeenth and has a rather hectic prose at times. It didn’t bother me at all. It could have been a put-off but it wasn’t. I’m sure I missed a lot of subtleties that only a Londoner can see.

It seemed clever in its assessment of city life and it’s erudite in an off-hand manner, which I like in a book. I heard Michel de Montaigne in the text, like here Laurels. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. You sit on your arse. It reminded me of this quote by Montaigne Sur le plus beau trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul ! (Even on the nicest throne in the world, one still sits on their ass !) I’m sure there were other references like this in the novel.

Unfortunately, I’m a reader who cares about characters and plot. In the first section, we meet Leah and her husband Michel. Leah is white and Michel is French and black. That’s important. They’re both in their mid-thirties and we’re in Leah’s head. And that’s an annoying head to be in. I didn’t like Leah at all. She reminded me of Bruno in Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. The style is totally different but these characters have something in common. They go nowhere with their lives, whine, have the blues of the unsatisfied white adult and make shocking decisions. Boring. I’m still trying to figure out why Leah put me off a book I found extremely well-written and captivating in its picture of the urban world. I have trouble putting words on my emotions about her. Usually, I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book, or I wouldn’t read crime fiction. I even liked books where I found the characters infuriating, like Maggie in Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

So why Leah? Actually, I stopped reading after she got her third abortion and this one without telling her husband who desperately wants a child and thinks they have fertility problems. She got on my nerves. I’m all for doing whatever you want with your body but being 35, with a stable job in a country with NHS and not being able to take proper contraception three times irritated me. I thought she was plain stupid, selfish and dishonest with her husband in a way which is, in my book, as bad as cheating on him. I didn’t want to be in her head any more. I know it’s judgemental but I couldn’t help it. I realise I abandoned a book before because I couldn’t stand the main character. It was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and the poor Toru Okada has things in common with Leah. Thirty, married, childless, bored and spineless. That’s for Leah.

And then there’s Michel. Who’s French, has an accent and makes grammar mistakes familiar to a French speaker. (Of course, your skin is white, it’s different, it’s more easy, you’ve had opportunities I didn’t have.). I have troubles with a Michel who’s 35. You see, in France – and I double-checked on the INSEE web site – a Michel is born before 1960. Think of actors, writers and singers like Michel Piccoli, Michel Blanc, Michel Houllebecq, Michel Butor, Michel Berger, Michel Jonasz. Smith’s Michel is thirty-five and I couldn’t picture that, no matter how hard I tried. He’s of Algerian and Guadeloupian origin, OK but still. It’s odd. I asked around, for my generation, Michel is an avuncular name. Maybe Michel is named after Houellebecq and Montaigne. Who knows? For the same reasons, I also had trouble imagining a thirty-ish Jean-Paul in Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Please Anglophone writers, pay attention to the names of your French characters, as some names are like time stamps.

Imagine this. I’m reading, I find Leah annoying and I couldn’t picture a Michel without a pot belly and wrinkles. Hmm. When I thought about watching TV instead of picking NW, I knew it was time to let it go and start another book. My loss, I know.

Anyway, for readers who’d want to know more, here are serious reviews about NW:

Alan’s excellent review at Words of Mercury

David’s at Follow the Thread

Guy’s at His Futile Preoccupations

Lisa’s at ANZ Lit Lovers

Naomi’s at The writes of women

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