Sunday, January 18, 2015

North by northwest

Zadie Smith's NW left me a little bit (well, a lot, actually) at sea and the intervening six weeks have not brought much enlightenment, plus I'm not sure it was the best candidate for audio (adding to my confusion?) so maybe I can get this post done quickly (hah!).

London, England is divided into two-letter postal codes (followed by a number, i.e., EC1) and I believe these codes are a shorthand for the neighborhood in which you might live, so when Smith titles her novel NW, she is setting it in a part of London that already has meaning for many of her readers. In my limited knowledge, her NW (unfortunately all those links to the Museum of London are dead) is poor, immigrant, and chock-a-block with public housing (council estates to those of us who read a lot of British fiction). Natalie and Leah grew up in an NW estate, Caldwell -- Natalie is black (first generation from the Caribbean), and Leah white (mixed Irish) -- but only Natalie (formerly Keisha) has moved out. She is a successful barrister and has a handsome mixed-race husband and two children. Leah lives with her African husband and is a social worker.

There are two black men who figure in the story as well, both childhood friends of Natalie and Leah.

NW takes place over an eventful year (I think I've got the time frame right), beginning when Leah is scammed out of £30 and ends with Natalie -- who is the novel's main character and has spent the year slowly straying from the path of "success" that she wanted so much -- returning to Caldwell and identifying a murderer.

Whew! The narrative is ... shall we say, experimental. We spend some conventional narrative time inside Leah's slightly trippy head (called "Host") and then have an interlude with Felix (one of the two men), and then we move on to Natalie/Keisha (called "Visitation"). And that's where I fell off the rails. Natalie's chapters are numbered and short and can be as much about a feeling as an action. Is it in Natalie's narrative where she walks through the neighborhood step-by-step a la Google maps, or is it Leah? At one point, Chapter 37 was followed by Chapter 16 (this is where I consulted the print book and I still don't know why). There are sections where an omniscient narrator appears and I couldn't track why this occurred. I experienced great leaps between and within chapters causing narrative whiplash and I finally decided that Smith was just relying on me to figure it out. I would have appreciated a little more help, I decided.

So, yes, the experimental narrative makes for difficult listening, but the audiobook's readers are very good. The bulk of the reading is from Karen Bryson, who reads both the Leah and Natalie sections. Bryson reads with a rapid neutrality in a soft and pleasant manner that is enlivened by her distinct and authentic character voices, she can move from the "street" of Caldwell's denizens to the "received" of her chambers colleagues effortlessly. Caribbean accents are interspersed with Irish, West African, and many others.

The other narrator, who reads Felix's interlude, is Don Gilet (jill-A). He has a nice baritone and reads the narrative with a slight working class accent. Dialogue is delivered with appropriate accents, natural sounding and interesting.

I have a note that reminds me that when Natalie is in an online chatroom, there are computer typing sound effects (my notes say "meh"). And there's another section where a bunch of women are sassily conversing ("where did all the good brothers [bruvvers] get to") and suddenly there is laughter from what sounds like a half-dozen or so mixed voices (probably all Bryson). Kind of weird.

The opening credits are read by Bryson until she gets to Gilet's name and he says it, i.e., "read by Karen Bryson ... and Don Gilet." Gilet gets to read a little bit more in the closing credits. And in the department of feminism, why is Gilet's name before Bryson's on the cover?

I really enjoyed Smith's White Teeth when it was published, and may still get around to On Beauty. Mostly I'll read her because she loves libraries.

[One of Smith's narrative sections is "NW6." Here's a photo of Priory Road, London NW6, taken by Christine Matthews as part of the project and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

NW by Zadie Smith
Narrated by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet
Penguin Audio, 2012.10:58

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