You might pick up a Zadie Smith book with a little thought, “this will be good for me”. She is terribly clever, and also a brilliant stylist, but in her earlier novels (White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty), you knew you couldn’t at any time switch off. She is demanding, in the sense that she demands your attention in every line.
On Beauty was a superb novel for those who like their novels, no matter how action-packed and even romantic, to be also thoughtful and meaty.
The characters were young people trying to sort out the big ideas against the backdrop of making social and moral mistakes.
Set in Boston, it took us away from the depressing urban streets of Smith’s London to the United States, where she now lives.
In NW, it’s back to the depressing streets of London. And where On Beauty had all the rich flow of a grand narrative in the classic style, NW tries to mimic or reflect something of the staccato, patched up, flickering lives of the estate kids who are the central characters.
This is dangerous territory, trying, from a position of educated, worldly, successful achievement, to write about lives that are circumscribed by hopelessness.
It’s good a writer as trustworthy as Smith has done this.
As you follow her onto the scary underground, along dreary streets, up into council flats where the day is punctuated by another joint or line of cocaine, it isn’t
But there is constantly humour, albeit very black, and there is also a very careful balancing of caring and judging.
How much does where you come from and how your culture defines you not just shape but mis-shape the “essential” you?
Smith’s decision to trial different kinds of storytelling – stream of consciousness, diary-style snippets – in the one narrative is a bit challenging, but it’s also very apt for the story she is trying to tell.
This is a brave and even audacious book, which tackles the kinds of problems the best novelists in the 21st century must face.
Bendigo historian Robyn Ballinger will be inviting writers to find inspiration in the kinds of objects you find in your own backyard, at a workshop next week run by the Bendigo Writers Council.
Bring along an object that has a sentimental or historic value to you or your family and work with Robyn to develop a story from there.
The two-hour workshop will be at BEST, 26-28 St Andrews Ave, $5, with supper provided. Call Dawn on 5434 4417.
– Rosemary Sorensen