'When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?'
Those famous lines, written in the 14th century by John Ball, form the epigraph to Zadie Smith's most recent novel NW.
I knew of them and they had puzzled me for years so finally I look it all up and discover they were written during the Peasant's Revolt. Read with so many differing inflections and interpretations, the words can be made to say so much about gender and class distinctions and equality, that they do make the most perfect entry into a novel that really kept me very pleasurably on my toes and pounding the streets of London ... even if I was basking in the dappled sunlight of the Shire and gazing out on this view as I read. It was an incongruence that struck me with great regularity.
Ultimately so possessed was I by the mood and the spirit of the read that it had to be the book I took along to Endsleigh Salon last week for the reading theme of Fruit and Veg. This on the basis that I had meant to re-read Susan Hill's The Magic Apple Tree but hadn't, and really wanted to talk about NW anyway, so I winged it on the basis that Zadie's grandmother might have been called Granny Smith and thus had an apple named after her. It was tenuous but the salonistas let it pass, and my thanks to Simon Prosser, Zadie's publisher, who alerted me to the presence of the apple tree on page twenty-nine.
Thinking too of book as object. If you open out the French flaps on the cover of the new paperback edition of NW, this is what you get..
It was a bit of a bookish origami moment, and I was quite pleased with that clever design effect as I occasionally dragged myself away from the pages to have a play with the book, and to think about what I had read, before diving back in. In fact I had wanted some latter-day contrast, some anti-nostalgia, some get-real-and-of-the-moment reading to balance out that week of Coronation musing and I couldn't have chosen a more perfect read.
NW is relentlessly and minutely about London and a group of four Londoners, all from the same housing estate in Kilburn, all going to the same school and now all leading very different lives. Often disillusioned, frequently challenged and compromised yet returning to their roots and their origins for explanations and answers, and somehow, as I read of them emerging from each scrap and scrape, I had an innate sense of optimism that mostly all would be well.
There is no doubt that on paper it is Keisha Blake who has achieved the greatest success, changing her name to Natalie in order to fit into the world of the corporate lawyer for which she has qualified, but remaining inseparable from her Kilburn roots.
Perhaps it is Leah Hanwell, Keisha's best friend, who is overtly the one with potential and ambition the least fulfilled as she drifts into life as a council administrative assistant and grapples with her aversions to pregnancy and parenthood with her husband, hairdresser Michel.
Or maybe it is Felix with his ambitions to restore classic cars...and as you read you sort of know it's never going to happen.
And then there's Nathan...
Yet as the novel unfolds so do the surprises, contentment with life's pattern is hard won and not where you may always expect to find it.
For me, the best part of the book came with the 185 numbered vignettes that take the story right back to the early days and the beginnings of Keisha/Natalie and Leah's friendship, finally converging with the present-day story as the reader already knows it. We had an interesting debate about this at the Endsleigh Salon. Someone who had read the book (and enjoyed it) suggested these short pieces conveniently reflected the fact that Zadie had perhaps written the book on and off through interrupted time post-childbirth... it hadn't occurred to me but we did just wonder all the same. If so it was a clever use of time leading to a brilliant outcome (all I had to show for that time was a patchwork quilt that took me five years to finish...oh yes, and three lovely children) and by coincidence a few days later some thoughts on motherhood and creativity from Zadie herself.
The writing is so very clever but not too clever. The style, once I became accustomed to it, and to Zadie's omissions and inferences ...those tiny asides and hints that send the reader off to make some assumptions of their own, well it all felt astonishing, which may be why I had to keep calling a halt and taking stock. It is exactly like life, like being in a room and being part of the conversation. The way that not every single word needs to be said, that things are left unsaid because they can be, and that those present will cotton on to the meaning and go with the flow of the conversation and the situation regardless, and with what sleight of pen does Zadie Smith trap this on the page. I supect I'd be nervous should I ever (unlikely) find myself in the same room as Zadie when she is gathering book material, in fact I doubt she ever stops given her level of observation.
That playing with the French flaps just one of the many things I discovered you can do with a book by Zadie Smith apart from sending it to the charity shop that is. I am now very ashamed to admit that, having failed with Zadie's fiction to date, that is exactly what I had done with a half-read copy of White Teeth, only a few months ago in the Big Purge, though thankfully I had kept the half-read copy of On Beauty because it was a hardback and I had paid good money for it, and with all these half-reads around I hadn't bothered with The Autograph Man.
I had diagnosed myself as the wrong reader for Zadie Smith some years ago. Me old enough to be her mum, and I had declared this to be the writing of a younger generation that I just wasn't 'getting.' I can't decide if I feel happier to have discovered Zadie Smith will be thirty-eight this year, or mortifed because that makes me feel even older.
'When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you - and in public...I'm forced to recognise that ideological consistency is, for me, practically an article of faith.'
Hence the title of the book of essays, and hence maybe why I have suddenly clicked with Zadie Smith's fiction in NW, her fourth outing, and I have to admit I have been swept up and along and away by a book that I felt certain I wouldn't want to read.
NW is, amongst myriad themes, a book about class, and race, and prejudice (not necesarily racial) about ambition (or lack of it) and people doing the best they can with what they've got, or have inherited, or earned, or been given. Sometimes that 'best' is good enough, sometimes it falls short, but then who is anyone to judge. If you love the minutiae of ordinary people's lives then you might enjoy this one, and once you have settled into the narrative style will be pounding the streets of London with the best of them,
The oddest yet most pleasurable reading week I have had in a long time. I even had £10 at 5:1 riding on NW to win the Women's (now Bailey's Women's) Prize for Fiction, which sadly for Zadie (and for me) it didn't, but Zadie I forgive you.
So any Zadie fans out there??
Do I go back to the beginning and try again??