An unconventional, stylish stroll through north-west London with three wonderfully constructed, yet fundamentally flawed native thirty-somethings as our guide.
Zadie Smith expertly renders a snapshot of a multitude of lives, in a unique and evolving style, through the eyes of three conflicted personalities in an, at times warm, at times harsh journey, as much through the streets of Willesden, Harlesden and Queens Park, as through the minds of our three protagonists.
The story begins with Leah Hanwell, an early thirties woman of Irish descent, for whom “the sun is fatal. So red, so pale”, who grew up in the fictional council estate of Caldwell. The first act of the book charts her relationship with her Francophone husband Michel, her disapproving mother, her unsatisfying career and most importantly her lifelong yet apparently waning friendship with one Natalie – formerly Keisha – Blake.
It is through Leah that Smith begins to explore one of the key themes of her book; the dichotomy between the constructed public face of the characters and their innermost insecurities. With Leah, this manifests itself in her fears of becoming a mother and in keeping these fears from Michel. It is here where we see Leah bemoaning the apparent perfect life of her now irritating best friend Natalie and “her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child.” Smith’s ability to set the scene for what is to come in the book resounds the further you proceed, and as an explanatory yet ultimately incorrect perception make what is yet to come all the more shocking as we delve, later in the book, into Natalie’s persona versus her insecurity. These and countless other tiny indicators are Smith at her un-level best. The end of the first of three distinct acts arrives quite suddenly, leaving behind Leah at a carnival party, deeply affected by the death of a young man, Felix Cooper, “one street from her own”.
Act two, of course, centres on Felix, a character physically as well as mentally afflicted in his battle against a former self. A recovering drug addict, Felix demonstrates a more tangible struggle against his own dual personas, at once reveling in a new-found positive relationship, whilst simultaneously being pulled back into his former world via an impromptu and impulsive visit – and fuck – with ex-lover, the exuberantly posh crackhead, Annie.
Felix’s short middle act finishes as abruptly as it began, but sad, bleak and as cold as the steel used to end his puzzling and brief cameo. His death, however, gives birth to the life of the book’s most interesting and troubled character; Natalie ‘Keisha’ Blake (who, for sake of ease, I shall refer to as NKB henceforth, unless I don’t, in which case, I won’t!). NKB’s entry as the third central character to the book also heralds a very distinct change in stylistic approach from Zadie Smith, as she switches to short, often one or two paragraph sections – mini-chapters perhaps? – depicting key moments in the life of NKB since she first met best friend Leah, when NKB had saved Leah from drowning by pulling her up from the water by her red pigtails, right up to the present day.
We flit from one event after another in NKB’s life and very quickly Smith paints a portrait of an intellectually outstanding individual only too able to understand the dissonance of her own internal and external existence. From the earliest indications of her ability to learn with ease, to her later struggles with maternity, success and ambivalence toward her husband, we encounter a person perfectly able to consider and dissect her paradoxical feelings and actions, yet utterly frozen in fear and inarticulation when confronting them.
The ultimate point of stress which leads to the shattering of the wall between Natalie and Keisha, strikes me as somewhat implausible, but is constructed through a series of subtle references throughout the third act, that only become truly apparent with the rolling back of a foreskin.
NKB’s tale concludes with an ultimately timely encounter with an unsettling, lingering presence from throughout the tale, as she wanders the streets of her childhood home with homeless addict Nathan; as Leah’s crush as a loveable ten-year-old; as the shadow of Felix’s former personality, who ultimately brings about his demise; and now as NKB’s unlikely solace following the collapse of her marriage, and the wall she’d built to keep her two names apart.
It is in a dreamlike state that neither Natalie or Keisha establish Nathan’s complicity in the heinous act that Leah heard on the news and which stopped Natalie from getting to Kilburn tube station, and this act which brings them, their stuttering friendship and their respective sanities back from the brink, softly rounding the corners of these two fractured personalities that will be only too familiar to many people to be comfortable reading; unclear as to what life holds now, or what it held in the past, let alone what the future may bring.
In an ending that doesn’t satisfy every tiny thread of the stories we’ve heard – what of Frank, Natalie’s husband? What of Grace, Felix’s girlfriend? What of drug-addict Annie? What of Lloyd, Felix’s dad? – I found a more satisfying depiction of real life: How often are all the ends tied away neatly in our perceptions of other people’s – even our own – lives? How often do we stop to wonder what happened with someone who had a passing impact on ours, or our loved ones lives? Zadie Smith singes away these frayed endings in her tangle of crossed lives, so we end up leaving North-West London, with a dash more hope for ourselves than we entered with.