Yes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)
I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at 746books.com and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.
I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..
Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway
An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time
Overall I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.
Until a few years ago few visitors to London would have made it to the parts of the city that collectively form the postcode area known as NW (an abbreviation of North West). Places like Willesden and Kilburn were simply names on the map but not anywhere you’d want to visit. They’re still not in the top 10 places to see in the city but time has given some parts a more trendy and even gentrified feel.The rennovated houses and newly-built homes do however sit uncomfortably with down at heel council estates and crack-addicts just a few streets away. This idea of a divided city forms the basis of NW by Zadie Smith. This is her home turf as it were, an area she ‘escaped’ just as the upwardly-mobile Caribbean Keisha and the half-Irish Leah attempt to do in the novel with varying access.
Keisha makes her escape by changing her name to the more ‘acceptable’ Nathalie and making a name for herself as a commercial barrister tipped to be one of the youngest admitted as Queen’s Counsel. Her marriage to rich and stylish Italian-Trinidadian Franco, is accompanied by two kids and a plush home in the desirable Queen’s Park area – all signals to outsiders that that she’s made the leap from her respectable black working class origins in Kilburn. But it’s an illusion for Nathalie harbours a misery and tries to overcome it through some high-risk adventures.
Her school friend Leah also took the educational route away from her upbringing though her degree in philosophy hasn’t given her the financial success or the feeling of smug satisfaction she sees emanating from Nathalie. Leah is doing Ok, she’s married to a hairdresser who wants to be an online investor whizz kid, living in a council flat not too far from her childhood home and under pressure to have his child. Her work in an office is marred by the resentment of her fellow African-Caribbean workers who all think Michel, a black man of French origins. rightly belongs to them not to Leah. Whenever Leah visits Nathalie she can’t help ending up irritated by her friend’s patronising attitude.
The paths they take to escape from destiny are shadowed by two men from their schooldays: Nathan Bogle who was once the shining boy in school, the flame around whom Leah built an obsessive love. Now he is a crack-smoking addict who hangs around the bus station . Then there is Felix, a boy neither of the others really knew but who descended into drugs before reforming and now appears to be on the cusp of a new beginning to his life.
The interactions with these men propel some of the story forward and force the girls to re-evaluate their lives. But these men – just like the two husbands – are figures in the background whose personalities are not as fully developed as the women and who existed for me simply to move the story along and give us a different perspective.
So what is the story? The details I’ve given above are about as coherent as I can describe it since this is a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. It’s more a kaleidoscope of closely observed scenes of city life and inward reflections about individual struggles.
It’s told episodically in four sections which begin with Leah’s story in a section called Visitation as she goes about her life. At the end she hears of a fatal stabbing in a street in a local street. We then switch to Guest which takes place on the day of the murder and is told through the point of view of the dead man (I wont give the name to avoid spoiling the story). Section 3 Host is about Nathalie which takes us back to their childhood and teenage years and reveals her unhappiness with life. In the final section she meets unexpectedly with Nathan and they go on a wander around their old neighbourhood which acts as a catharsis in her relationship with Leah and her husband.
At times intense, at others rather chaotic and jumbled, this is a novel where the personality of one segment of a city and its population come to life. It’s closely observed from street level as it were with finely judged dialogue. In one scene, where Leah and Michel go for dinner at Nathalie’s home, the conversation is rendered as a meld of banal comments about food fetishes amidst diatribes about the state of the health service, immigration, Islam, birthing strategies, water shortages and so on.
The conversational baton passes to others who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. … Pass the heirloom tomato salad. … Pass the green beans with shaved almonds
Much of the narrative is stream of consciousness which at times is delivered with such pace it’s hard to keep up with. Fresh and original as this novel is in style and fun for that reason to read, overall I was left with the feeling that I was missing whatever it was Zadie Smith was trying to say. Was she trying to show that you cannot entirely escape your past? That there is questionable value about getting on in the world since it doesn’t always make you happy. NW felt like a book that meandered rather than coming to any conclusion.
Author: NW by Zadie Smith
Published: 2013 by Penguin
Length: 294 pages
My copy: I acquired this as a spur of the moment purchase in Birmingham airport as a way of relieving the boredom of a delayed flight to Brussels. The forgot I had it until the 20booksofsummer challenge prompted me to delve deep into the bookshelves.
A few years ago a colleague asked me to recommend a novel or a writer that would epitomise England. It was a question I found nigh on impossible to answer at the time. The passage of years hasn’t made it any easier. But in honour of St George’s Day today I thought I would revisit the topic.
I posed the same question in 2013 when I started my world literature project and started with Reading the Prime Meridian (reading one novel for each of the countries through which the meridian runs). The responses I received, which you can view here. I deliberately asked people to avoid recommendations for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or George Eliot. Of course they typify a certain side of England — if you want a view of life in rural and provincial England in the mid nineteenth century then who better than Eliot? Or if you want a picture of how urbanisation was changing the nature of the city, then Dickens is certainly your man. All good choices and ones I suspect would be top of mind for many readers. But they give us only one facet of England. And one that is now a few centuries past.
What about something more recent? Evelyn Waugh was one suggestion. If we’re talking Brideshead Revisited then yes that would give us a view of the English gentry on the eve of World War 1. The stately home, fox hunting side of England if you like.
Other suggestions came from friends: Grahame Greene (Brighton Rock); Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea); Peter Ackroyd (Hawskmoor, The Lambs of London), Ian McEwan . All good suggestions but I don’t see them as typifying England.
The more I thought about this and the more suggestions that came in, the more I realised that there was one aspect of England that wasn’t getting reflected at all. And that is the multicultural dimension. Visit London on any day and the number of accents you’ll here is astonishing – and I don’t mean accents of tourists or day visitors. I mean people who live and work in the city. Polish, Australian, Indian, Chinese, French, Arabic, Canadian … and those are just ones that I recognise. This isn’t a phenomena confined to London, you’ll get the same impression in Birmingham or Leeds.
Of course I can argue that it was ever the same – that England has long been home for people from outside the island. What we think of as Englishness today has much to do with invaders from the Roman Empire, from France and from the Nordic lands. They gave us straight roads (thank you Romans); influenced our language (more than 60% of the words we use in English today have a French origin) and many of our place names (the Viking name for York was Jorvik, any place name that ends in horpe or thwaite derives from the Vikings). In the twentieth century Italians brought us ice-cream parlours and real coffee (well before the likes of Starbucks) and Pakistan settlers introduced us to biryani and masalas.
If we want reading that truly reflects England today shouldn’t we look to writers who reflect that cultural diversity? I’m thinking Zadie Smith, one of Granta‘s list of 20 best young authors, whose novel NW is set in a typical mixed London suburb and brings us the polyphonic nature of contemporary urban life. it’s a novel about which the Telegraph critic said:
In a hundred years time, when readers want to understand what the English novel was capable of, and what English life truly felt like, they will look at NW, and warm to it.
So there you have it, one novel that could be said to represent England as the country stands today.
Travelling seemed a whole lot simpler for Simon and Garfunkle. All they carried was a suitcase and guitar. Me, I had enough reading material to last me an entire round the world trip (maybe two of them). To whit:
three electronic devices capable of storing books (laptop, iPad, Ipod)
various work related documents
So why then did I feel compelled to add to this collection by purchasing two new books in the airport??. I was only away for two nights and the flight lasted just 1.5 hours.
The answer is that put me anywhere near a bookshop and I find it hard to resist. It gets even harder to resist when I know I am going to be travelling and might, just might, get that horrid experience of ‘having nothing to read that I like.’
I tried my best this time. I really did. I decided while packing that I wouldn’t take any ‘real’ book with me. I would rely on my iPad. Two hours before leaving home, I wavered. ‘You can’t use your iPad during take off or landing. I can’t just sit there for 20 mins at a time without anything to read! So maybe I could just take this little one with me.’
My inner voice told me not to be stupid. So out of the case it came.
I did look at the promotional counter at the airport. But saw nothing particularly enticing so walked away with halo intact. But then of course I needed to buy a newspaper so had to walk past the shelves in the W H Smith outlet. And they had a buy one, get second half price deal. Which included Zadie Smith’s NW.
And so my inner dialogue went down this path
“She was named in the Granta list today. I liked White Teeth so I should read this one shouldn’t I?
You don’t need to buy it, you could get it from the library.
Yes, I know but they probably won’t have it yet…..
It’s a bargain. I’ll get it.”
And did I read it? Nope. Did I even open the book while I was away? Nope
Will I read it soon? Um, probably not. It’s cozying up to the 100 or so other books on the ‘waiting to be read’ shelf right now. Along with the other one I bought: The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer
On the plus side, while away, I did read Snowdrops by A. D Miller – posted the review earlier today and began reading Dark Fire, the second in the Shardlake series by C J Sansom. Both of which have been good antidotes to the rather gloom and doom books I read more recently.
My next trip is in a week. Question now is whether I can manage a whole week with just iPad or do I succumb and take one real book with me…….