Review | Tuesday 21 August 2012
Zadie Smith – renowned author of the bestselling White Teeth, as well as the Orange Prize-winning On Beauty – has chosen to base her new novel mostly in Kilburn, North West London (or NW), and its surrounds.
Born and bred there herself, she provides a topography of the psyche of modern Britain like no other. Brilliantly written through the colourful tongue of characters’ Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan, the nuances of class, sex, and education are revealed as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood.
NW is a place of extreme contrasts, and the novel is divided into five distinct sections. ‘Visitation’ opens and closes the book with the story of a woman who came to Leah Hanwell’s door asking for help, forcing her out of her isolation. ‘Guest’ places you in NW6, Kilburn district, where Felix Cooper meets Tom Mercer outside Topshop in Oxford Street for a quote to get his hand-me-down car from his father repaired. Mostly based over one spring and summer, ‘Host’ tells of Natalie and Leah’s early childhood friendship and, later in their mid-thirties, we meet the women again – apparently happily married and professionally employed. However, in ‘Crossing’ we discover they are both engaged in forms of secretive, potentially dangerous rebellion against their domestic lives.
Zadie Smith’s vibrant depiction of the streets of NW London is so vivid that my time living there over a decade ago seems like only yesterday. The smells of the shisha pipes of Edgeware Road, the glorious fresh air, trees and grass of Hampstead Heath, the sounds of Halal and phone shops of Willesden and the rushings and brushings of Kilburn. Why this book didn’t make the cut for the Man Booker longlist is a complete mystery.
Emily Harms is Readings’ Marketing Manager and is a regular insomniac in her spare time.