Book Review by Jessica Oliver
Zadie Smith’s fourth novel comes after a collection of essays (Changing my Mind), the editorship of a collection of short stories (The Book of Other People), countless columns and public appearances. Her business is voice: her own, of course, but most particularly, other peoples. She is one of the best living writers; one who plays so determinedly on polyphony, harmony and (at her best), discord.
Her latest book is not just a reading experience – she forces you to sound out the voices for yourself, meaning it is as much an audial experience as a reading exercise. Returning to the Willesden area from a jaunt to the East Coast of the US (On Beauty), the book follows three protagonists born and raised – and still living – there.
Among them are childhood best friends Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake (nee Keisha). Leah is a philosophy graduate, who coasts in her job and is strangely ambivalent in a seemingly happy and passionate marriage. Natalie is a high-flying lawyer, who has ticked every box in her social and professional climb; she’s brilliantly qualified, had great opportunities handed to her and has a rich husband. As you may expect, she is initially deeply unlikable.
Another strand to the narrative follows Felix, whose attempts to leave behind a former life of petty crime and dealings proves complex. His attempts to shake-off the influence of his charismatic but feckless father, and a particularly well-drawn ex-girlfriend Annie – a drug and booze addicted, wholly amoral predator with a trust fund – are doomed from his first appearance.
The novel is divided into three strands following these characters, and each is stylistically distinct. For Felix, boxed in by his past, his neighbourhood is drawn by walls and corners – places to hide or conceal, voices to overhear or smother. Leah’s narrative is stark, precise, honest – lining up to Natalie/Keisha’s later account of her rebellious teenage years.
Surprisingly, it is Natalie herself whose voice lingers on after the book is finished. Initially a well-poised ice queen, with whom Leah struggles to find common ground, she emerges as a deeply conflicted character. Her prose breaks down from an organized, notational approach – accounting for her rise from a contained life between her council house and local church to the law offices of Chancery Lane – to a tangled mess. Her self-deceit and compelling detachment from life are both chilling and endearing.
Zadie Smith has once again proved her mastery of voice. Returning to a place that is so familiar, but so frightening – the place you grew up – she shows the most enthralling stories are closest to home.