Book Review – NW by Zadie Smith

Book Review – NW by Zadie Smith

Title – NW

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Zadie Smith

Published – 2012

Enjoyment rating – 9/10

*       *       *

This novel is a tour de force. It’s only a little over 300 pages long, but it took me a full week to complete even though I was reading several hours every day. I wanted to savour Zadie Smith’s writing, which had me hooked from the very first page.

The novel has two principal characters, Leah and Keisha/Natalie. By the end of the first page, Zadie Smith hasn’t told us this; all we know is that one of them has red hair, and a husband, Michel, whose politics differ from hers. What we have instead is dazzling description, a reference to Shakespeare, philosophy, politics and a terrible pun.

If the novel is about anything, it’s about the nature of friendship. Or the nature of love. Or the futility of life. Or a hymn to the tight-knit communities of London villages. Or a dissection of human motivations, in particular the urge to project a consistent narrative about one’s life. Or all of the above.

It is carefully constructed; very carefully indeed. One of the climactic events is foreshadowed at least twice, and yet it’s still a shocking surprise when it comes.

The principal characters are Leah Hanwell, daughter of Irish immigrants and her best friend Keisha who is BAME. We learn of their childhood friendship, and how it evolved from a chance dramatic event. We read how they approach life, Keisha even going so far as to change her name to Natalie to achieve her goal and become a highly paid lawyer. We see how their life-choices take them into quite different social worlds, and yet they retain their childhood friendship.

Men, their thoughts and needs, are not prominent; for example, Natalie’s husband, Frank, is more noticeable by his absences than by his presence. Even Leah’s husband Michel, who is written fairly sympathetically, is excluded from crucial actions by Leah, who decides and acts unilaterally.

The novel portrays men’s principal characteristic as desire for sex and respect. And the novel suggests an answer as to why respect is so important to the men of this community; it is because society, backed by the Establishment, doesn’t show them any. There is a very telling scene where a young man is smoking in a children’s play park. The women, with Natalie prominent, order him to stop; they overwhelm him with their criticism. It is no coincidence that Natalie is a lawyer – here, she symbolises the weight of the Establishment.

But it’s the two women and the constancy of their friendship that is the heart of this novel. Their affection isn’t romanticised; they argue, criticise, even steal, and it’s clear that in many ways they’re very different. And yet the bond is there, unbroken. The novel closes with Leah and Natalie doing something that is the adult equivalent of how they behaved together as teenagers, showing that despite the stress on their friendship, it remains solid.

I have to say, this novel enthralled me. It is so well written, and so thought provoking I’ve returned to it again and again.

Normal People – a review

Normal People – a review

Author – Sally Rooney

Genre – Literary fiction

Rating – 9/10

This is an outstanding novel that explores the redemptive power of human love.

Marianne and Connell live in a provincial town in Ireland, and have known each other since childhood. Connell is popular; captain of the school football team, and with good social skills. Marianne is unpopular, derided for her looks, her dress sense and her refusal to conform to the social norms of her peers. Connell is poor; Marianne is well off. Both are extremely intelligent.

In their last year at school, they feel a powerful sexual attraction to each other, and make love. The experience reaches a level of intimacy that startles them both – but they conceal this. As far as the world knows they are casual friends.

Although by the time they go to university they have ‘split up’, the attraction is as strong as it ever was. They struggle against it, forming sexual relationships with other partners, but there is always that spark when they meet.  

Gradually we are led to understand how each of them is damaged. Can their relationship survive this? Can it, indeed, save them? For salvation is what they need; the stakes couldn’t be higher. If they get this wrong, they can never fulfil their potential; they will shrivel and die as individuals.

I found the novel gripping. Having read it once, I admired it so much that I read it again intending to learn from it. Lo and behold, I was about three pages in and the story took control again, and I just read it for pleasure. It really is that good!

The dove on the pergola – an invitation

The girl who went to Kolkata 180417

“The dove on the pergola” – an invitation

In Kolkata, extreme wealth and abject poverty co-exist side by side. Modern thinking conflicts with traditional beliefs, and yet people remain subtly influenced by the old ways. There are people with devout religious faith rubbing shoulders with those who acknowledge no god.

In rural Bengal, by contrast, traditional values still hold sway, and family interests come before almost everything.

What would it be like, I wonder, for a young Indian woman who has grown up in a village in Bengal, to move to the big city of Kolkata?

And that is the starting point for the novel I have just started to write – “The dove on the pergola”.

Makshirani, the heroine of the novel, has to find a way to build her life in Kolkata. How will her traditional upbringing influence her choices? Will her beliefs and background give her sufficient flexibility to survive and prosper in the city?

The starkness of these questions and the consequences of failure seem to me to be much greater in India than in the Western world. That’s exciting, and it’s why I’m writing this novel.

So here’s an invitation.

Once a week, every Monday, I shall post about the progress I’m making. For obvious reasons I shall not divulge much of the plot, rather I shall be writing about the process of constructing the novel. If you’re interested in that, please follow me. And if you want to ask questions about what I have posted via the comments section, I shall do my best to provide satisfactory answers. Constructive criticism is welcomed with open arms!

Just a footnote about the writing I’ve done previously. I have written two novels, neither of which has been published. I have written well over 100 short stories, (mostly flash fiction of 100 or 150 words) that have all appeared on this blog. If you’re interested, you can find them in the archives.

I saw the earth move

When I look out of my dining room window on a misty, drizzly day, I see in the foreground a half dozen houses that are part of the estate on which I live. Beyond them, an old viaduct looms magnificently among the even older trees of Long Timber Wood. Tiny cloudlets form and dissolve above the valley of the River Erme, which brawls down from ancient Dartmoor into the village of Ivybridge. It is a sight of sombre beauty even on a grey winter’s day.
Saturday, by contrast, was clear and bright. I sat at breakfast enjoying a soft-boiled egg and a cup of freshly ground coffee, and I gazed at the frost on the roof of one of the houses. My attention was caught by the hard-edged shadow that the building next to mine cast in the light of the new-risen sun. The shadow contrasted sharply with the bright white of the frost and made an acute angle across the roof.
And then I realised that I could see the shadow move. Its edge was travelling just fast enough for the motion to be perceptible. It was moving because the sun was rising. The sun was rising because the earth was rotating. I was – literally – watching the spinning of the earth about its axis!

Thank you for visiting my blog!

If you enjoyed what you have read, please “Like” and “Share”. If you are new to the site, please feel free to browse earlier posts.

If you would like to be sure of reading future posts, please “Follow” me, and then you will receive email notification of every post (I try to post at least twice a week).

Forbidden Fruit

Gilbert and Rhoda’s two horses grazed peacefully at the far end of the paddock. An electric fence protected the whips of hawthorn, damson, dog rose and briar that would grow into a hedge.
“Just this last jump to move into the corner with the others and then we can start to plant the fruit trees.”
Gilbert took a firm grip of one end of the structure; Rhoda took the other. “And…lift!” she called. Together they carried it easily to the hedge and put it down.
“I wish things had worked out as we planned,” said Gilbert. Rhoda took his hand and squeezed it. They both gazed at the low jumps.
“Those are the past, dear. The orchard is the future.” Although Rhoda spoke positively, she thought, ‘Maybe – maybe by relinquishing my dream I’ll make it come true.’ But she knew it wouldn’t.
Gilbert dug holes, Rhoda spread the tree roots, and Gilbert filled the holes with a mixture of soil and compost. Rhoda staked each tree carefully and watered it. They planted twelve trees, six apple trees, two cherry trees, two pear trees and two plum trees. The meadow would become an orchard and they would tend it together. It would bear fruit for them.
They stood side by side in the late afternoon sunshine, and looked at their handiwork. The new trees were well spaced, leaving them plenty of room to grow. Gilbert and Rhoda hoped to see them flourish and mature. Gilbert held Rhoda close. He kissed her tenderly on the mouth. Very gently she pushed him away. “We’d better go in,” she said. “I need to cook dinner, and you need to clean up ready for choir practice.” As they walked towards the house she slipped her hand into his.
“If the miracle happens, we can put the jumps up again,” said Gilbert.
Great Pinnerton Choral Society was a good choir, and Gilbert sang tenor with them. He was also the Secretary. His fair hair, blue eyes and athletic build had the more susceptible of the sopranos sighing over him; they knew he was safely unobtainable. Gilbert and Rhoda were a by-word for loving fidelity.
The choir was halfway through the vocal warm-up exercises when the door opened, and a man in a leather jacket entered. He made an apologetic gesture to the Musical Director, and stayed where he was until the vocal exercises were finished.
“Have you come to join us?”
The man nodded. “If you’ll have me. I’m a bass.”
“Excellent. I’ll give you a short audition in the break. Would you like to sit next to Eric in the back row?”
Eric waved a welcome. Mavis, the society’s librarian, bustled round with a score. “You can borrow this for now, but please come and see me during the interval,” she instructed.
The new arrival, dark-haired, tall and muscular, grinned at everybody. His teeth gleamed very white in his sun-tanned face. “Thanks for the welcome, folks. My name’s Brendan. I’ll hope to meet some of you later.”
Violet, the oldest soprano, nudged her neighbour and giggled sotto voce. Gilbert glanced up at Brendan as he squeezed past to reach his seat. There was an energy about the man that was simultaneously unsettling and attractive. Brendan caught his eye, patted him on the shoulder.
“Sorry for barging through.”
During the interval Gilbert went to greet Brendan; as Secretary he needed to record contact details. And, although he usually went straight home after the practice, this time he invited Brendan to join him for a beer in the Cutlers Arms.
As they started their second pints, Brendan pulled out his mobile.
“Let me show you something,” he said.
It was a video clip, an aerial view that plunged vertiginously to trees a hundred feet below. The camcorder panned through one-eighty degrees and showed a limestone cliff a mere twenty feet away, which stretched up another hundred feet above the camera.
“I shot this video in a microlight in Cheddar Gorge,” said Brendan. “You sound like an active chap, Gilbert. Have you ever flown a microlight?”
Gilbert shook his head, and laughed. “The highest I ever go above ground is when I’m hacking cross-country.”
“Ah! Hunting, shooting and fishing, eh?”
“No, just riding for pleasure. I’ve never felt the urge to kill things”
“Have you got the bottle for flying, do you think?”
“I’m not sure I can be bothered to find out.”
“Well, if you fancy giving it a try, I shall be in Kemble on Saturday. I’m a qualified instructor. I’ll take you up in tandem if you like. Give me a call; here’s my card. And now, I’d better be off. Two pints is more than enough. I’m on the bike tonight.”
He covered Gilbert’s hand briefly with his own. It was warm, dry, and calloused. “I hope I’ll hear from you.” The words were soft, almost a caress, and then Brendan was gone. Gilbert sat looking at his hand for fully twenty seconds, hearing again Brendan’s parting words, feeling again that odd, intimate, touch. Then he shook his head. He, too, should be on his way.
Come Saturday he was in Kemble, wearing both sweater and cagoul; Brendan had instructed him to come warmly dressed. He listened attentively to the induction talk, and then helped Brendan wheel the two man aircraft from the hangar onto the grass runway.
“Listen,” said Brendan. “This is important. For this first flight you are a passenger. All you must do is sit still; I’ll do everything necessary for the flight. You don’t need to try to move with me; that will only make controlling the craft more difficult. Just keep still, right?”
Gilbert nodded. “No problem.”
It was a glorious April morning, the cloudless blue sky scarred only by the contrails of airliners passing far overhead. The grass, short and even, glowed in the clear light. Brendan started the engine, which throbbed directly behind Gilbert. He felt the warmth of the sun on his shoulders, the slight cool breeze on his hands. The engine note rose in pitch and the craft began to move.
It reminded Gilbert of the first time he’d ridden a motorcycle, that sense of precarious balance, the speed of the ground passing beneath, simultaneously fast and slow. He looked up, ahead, past Brendan’s helmet. The speed was only about thirty miles an hour. And then the horizon dropped gently away and they were airborne.
They climbed slowly, in great circles. The rim of the world expanded. Gilbert saw a pigeon fly beneath them, flapping industriously from one rooftop to the next to join her mate. The wind was stronger and colder, and the fabric airfoil occasionally chattered slightly. The light of the sun perfused everything, dazzling when straight ahead, glinting off every reflective surface. Gilbert closed his eyes. He listened. He breathed the chill air. He felt. He lived.
When he opened his eyes again, he was surprised at their altitude. Cars on the motorway passed like coloured beads sliding on a thread. But even as he watched them, he realized that Brendan was taking their craft down. The engine note was quieter and less insistent. They were returning to the mundane world, with its problems and its grief. Gilbert wished that Brendan would climb again, take them ever higher until they reached the edge of the finite, the beginning of eternity.
Down they went, and now the aircraft was racing towards the runway. Fifteen feet, ten feet, they were over the grass, the wheels were spinning, five feet, a slight bump, and they were on the ground, with Brendan taxiing towards the hangar.
They stopped, dismounted. Brendan looked at Gilbert. The corners of his mouth quirked up. “Good, eh?”
Gilbert nodded. “Stunning.”
“Same time next week?”
“I’ll call you. Thank you.”
Gilbert sat in his car, motionless, his mind filled with the bigness of the sky and the closeness of Brendan. He had wanted to touch him, wanted to hold him as they flew. ‘I love Rhoda,’ he thought. ‘That’s what love is, the feelings I have for her. I can’t love Brendan.’ And once the thought had been articulated, he couldn’t rid himself of it.
Eventually he drove home, slowly, carefully, letting the concentration purge his mind, letting the morning’s scintillating images dim and dull until he could safely examine them, talk about them to Rhoda.
Of course he went the next week, and the week after. He started lessons. At first, Rhoda enjoyed his new liveliness; he had been becoming restless and frustrated. She was glad that he had this new hobby. She took advice from friends and bought him a single man aircraft ready for when he qualified to fly solo. It was the best birthday present he’d ever had.
A few weeks later, when Gilbert arrived for choir practice, he was accosted by Mavis.
“I’m a friend of yours, right?” she demanded of him.
“A very good friend, Mavis.”
“Would you mind walking me home after choir practice tonight, and having a coffee?”
“It will be my pleasure.”
During the interval, he told Brendan that he wouldn’t be able to join him in the Cutlers Arms after the practice. Brendan nodded.
“Okay.” He looked disappointed.
As Gilbert escorted Mavis, he asked whether she’d had any trouble to make her fearful of walking home on her own.
“I’m worried about you, not me,” she replied. “Let’s be discreet, and wait until we’re indoors, shall we?”
Once indoors, Gilbert accepted a biscuit and quietly took a sip of his coffee. Mavis cleared her throat.
“So what’s going on between you and Brendan?”
“That’s very blunt, Mavis. What on earth do you think is going on? Brendan and I are friends.”
“My eye. You’re inseparable. And the way you look at him. It’s not just me, Gilbert. People are gossiping.”
“I can’t be responsible for other peoples’ words. Brendan and I are friends, nothing more. We go flying together at the weekends.”
“How much time do you spend with Rhoda at the weekends?”
“Mavis, you are a dear friend, but I really don’t think it’s appropriate for you to ask me that sort of question.”
“Someone needs to ask it, Gilbert. I’m Rhoda’s friend too, remember.”
“Do you think I’m neglecting her? She seems happy about the flying.”
“We’re not talking flying here, Gilbert. Have you introduced Brendan to her?”
“I’m sorry, Mavis, I’m not prepared to be interrogated like this.”
“Hmph! I thought not. I bet you haven’t even told her about him.”
Gilbert put down his cup on the coffee table and stood up.
“Mavis. I appreciate your concern for me and for Rhoda. I take it in the spirit in which it was intended, but I have to say it is misguided. There is nothing…improper between Brendan and me.”
That weekend, in the hangar after the flight, Brendan kissed Gilbert. It was not a long kiss, a mere brushing of the lips with a warm embrace. Gilbert’s face convulsed. He pulled Brendan fiercely against him, then pushed him even more fiercely away.
“Brendan, this is impossible. I’m married.” His voice was rough.
Brendan shrugged.
“There’s little enough joy in the world, Gilbert. Grab it while you can.”
“I have joy with Rhoda.”
Softly. “I’m glad for you; but I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t do that again, Brendan. Not ever. Or I won’t be able to see you at all.”
“That might be better anyway.”
“No, wait, I didn’t mean I don’t want to see you. I do want to see you. It’s just that I don’t want to betray Rhoda. But you’ve woken me up, Brendan. Something had died, and now it’s alive again. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t see you again.”
Brendan crooked a finger.
“Come here, Gilbert. This won’t hurt you, or anybody else.”
He opened his arms. Gilbert looked at him. There was that little upward crease of the lips that he loved to see, the teasing, questioning recognition of his own identity that it implied. He slipped into the embrace, allowed Brendan to kiss him firmly. Then he stepped back.
“I must go, Brendan, I must go.”
“See you at choir practice, then. I hope you don’t get dragged off for more committee business afterwards; I enjoy our beer and chat.”
* * *
The row with Rhoda was the following Thursday. It started quietly; the worst rows often do.
“There’s a microlight festival in three weeks time, love. I thought I might go.”
“You do remember Val and Brian are coming to dinner on the fifteenth?”
“Ah. That had slipped my mind. Couldn’t we put them off?”
“I don’t want to put them off, Gilbert. I’d like to see them. I’d like us to see them together, because we haven’t done much together recently. In fact, I haven’t seen much of you at all.”
“Okay. Yes, sure. I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting you.”
“You could sound a little more enthusiastic. They’re our best friends.”
“I’m sorry, love. You know what I’m like when I start something new.”
“This is different, Gilbert. You’ve been a different person since the weekend. Distant. Not unhappy, in fact sometimes you seem positively exalted. But you never seem close.”
Gilbert spread his arms, expecting Rhoda to snuggle in as she usually did. She ignored the gesture.
“You don’t seem close now, Gilbert. In fact, you seem a mile away.”
Gilbert’s pulse raced. Had Mavis been talking? Had he better say something about Brendan?
“There’s something, isn’t there, Gilbert?”
“I’m having a great deal of pleasure from flying. It…lifts me up, opens me to, I don’t know, new thoughts, new experiences.”
“Take me this Saturday. Let me share that with you.”
“I’d better check with Brendan. We…”
“Brendan! This is about Brendan, isn’t it? That must be what Sheila meant when she commented on how close the two of you seemed at choir practice! It’s not about flying, not really. What’s going on, Gilbert?”
Gilbert folded his arms.
“Nothing is ‘going on’, Rhoda. Brendan and I are good friends.”
“I don’t like it, Gilbert. I want you to stop seeing him. Go and fly from a different airfield. Take me with you. Let’s be together again. I’ll learn to fly too, and we’ll fly together.”
Gilbert froze.
“You want me to stop seeing Brendan?”
“Yes. I want you to stop seeing him altogether, before you…you do something you would regret.”
“But…he’s my best friend, Rhoda.”
“Yes. And I’m your wife.”
“Rhoda, let me try to explain. What I feel for Brendan is different from what I feel for you.”
“Oh, you feel for Brendan, do you?”
“Yes, I do.” Gilbert spoke quietly but firmly.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that you love him?”
“I suppose, in a way, I do.”
“Have you…?”
“No. No, of course not. Of course we haven’t.”
“There’s something, though, isn’t there? Something happened at the weekend.”
“Brendan kissed me. He wanted more but I stopped him.”
“How could you, Gilbert, how could you?” Rhoda’s face worked with passion. “You’re my husband. You’re nothing to him. He doesn’t love you; I love you, I need you. Give him up – for both our sakes!”
“I don’t think I can give him up, as you put it. I think I’m in love with him.”
Rhoda was panting now, gasping for breath. “You bastard. You utter bastard. I’ve stayed with you even though you can’t give me children, the children I long for – the children I deserve!” The tears cascaded down her cheeks. Gilbert had never seen her weep before. It tore at his heart.
“My dear, my love, please stop. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do; I feel as though I’m being washed away in a deluge.”
He reached for her, tried to make some physical contact that would tether him to reality, to the bedrock of their relationship.
She hit him.
Hard.
The marks of her fingers purpled his cheek.
She was screaming now.
“Don’t be under any illusions. If you have sex with someone else, if you betray me, I shall have my children. I shall have sex with the milkman, or the postman, or the…the vicar – whatever it takes to get pregnant. And you, Gilbert, you will raise them as your own because when that predator has finished with you – used you up – wrung you dry – you’ll come to me on your knees, and that will be my price for taking you back.”
Gilbert stood, ashen.
Rhoda took several deep breaths, calmed herself, although the tears still flowed.
“I shall have a child with Brian!”
Gilbert recoiled from her. “Val is your best friend! Would you really do that to her?”
Rhoda’s lips twisted; her eyes were hard as stone. “Val will let me, when she knows what I’ve gone through. It’s only sex, when all’s said and done.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I will tell Val and Brian that your low sperm count is why we’ve never had children. I shall tell them about your fancy-man, and throw myself on their mercy.”
Gilbert sank onto one of the kitchen chairs. He looked at the ground without seeing it.
Rhoda grabbed the kitchen roll, and mopped her face.
“Leave him, Gilbert. Ring him now. Tell him it’s finished, he’s never to see you again.”
As though hypnotized, Gilbert drew his mobile out of his pocket. He called Brendan.
“It’s over, Brendan. I’ve been thinking. I love Rhoda; I’m not going to betray her even for you.” He struggled to speak. “I’ll stay away from Kemble. Would you, please, stay away from the Choral Society?”
Gilbert imagined the little shrug that would have accompanied Brendan’s “Okay.” He thought his heart would break.
“Well, goodbye then, Brendan.”
He rang off and looked up at Rhoda.
“I really do love you,” he said.
“I know.” She reached out and touched his hair. “The pain will go, Gilbert. It will go.”
* * *
Rhoda was pregnant by Christmas. Four years later, Gilbert and Rhoda watched hand in hand as their little boy, blond, blue-eyed and the image of Gilbert, set his pony at a low jump in the orchard – and cleared it.

I would be grateful for comments and criticism of this story because they will help me improve as a writer.

If you enjoyed the story, I would be grateful if you would “Like” it, either on Facebook or WordPress. If you think your friends would like it, please feel free to share on Facebook, or reblog on WordPress.