In the midst of moving out of our flat and into our friend A’s place, I sit in a chaos of belongings, writing this review. It seems fitting for this novel – the idea of fragments strewn everywhere, or neat in bags, waiting to be zipped up to some conclusion.
I first began NW on a sleeper train to London, having got the book at its first availability at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August last year. My copy is signed by Smith, and I wrote about the talk she delivered here. Why the long wait between then and now? I lent the book to G, in London and two weeks ago we met up in Glasgow and she gave it back to me. It is a well-traveled object.
As for the book itself, I started back mid-stream, finding that I could remember much of what had happened to the characters. The multitude was engaging and fresh. One of Smith’s great skills is dialogue, and in fact I felt that this whole thing could be made into a radio play quite easily. Londoner phrases I’d never heard and some I knew from my friends, like to ‘bell you’ for phone, ‘gotta chip’ for have to leave now, sprung out. The differences in accents and grammar across different social classes and immigrant groups were also smartly recorded and subtly held up to the reader’s eye, though I have to admit I didn’t get it all – London being its own country, threaded and intersected in complex ways by all these Englishes. Smith, however, gets it.
Or almost all: The scenes with Annie, the ballet dancer aristocratic junkie stood out as a little tin thread amongst the seamlessness of the whole. She sounded like someone who only existed in a play, and only then a monologue, and only then a monologue at some basement showing during the Edinburgh festival, put on to an audience of three.
But that was the only off part about dialogue, at least, as far as it was apparent to a non-Londoner like me. There was maybe too much of it, but since it was so good, and since Smith’s writing doesn’t favour scenic descriptions (leaving the city ‘grey’ to me, a lot of the time – a system of tube stops and street names) it added a vividness that would otherwise have been missing.
So I swooped through this book, once I had it again, and was greatly enjoying it. Until the din of voices calmed to that of predominantly a single character, Natasha Blake. Who was in her own right not as interesting as I’d have hoped. A character can be unlikeable as anything, or as charmingly good as Bit Stone in Arcadia. But to be boring is a crime. She was dully married, dully seeking affairs online, dully wrecked everything, wondered if she had a self and felt dryly at a loss when the answer she judged was no. The last part of the novel, in which she walks away from all devastation and ‘becomes walking’, and brushes with a suicidal impulse, was also dull. It felt like the writer taking the plot out for one last walk before bed. I know that impulse myself, but if it had been new, or if Smith had been able to make the London Blake travels through come alive, then I would have devoured it like I had the rest.
Instead I read to read, to be done. There was a lot to love and admire in this – the effortless weaving of so many voices, the clever scattered pieces here and there – but in the end NW was not enough of a destination, too much a cul-de-sac street.