Exclusive First Read: Zadie Smith's 'NW'
The title of Zadie Smith's newest novel might be enigmatic for Americans. NW is short for northwest London — an area of particular racial and class diversity. It's the birthplace of the novel's two main characters, Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake.
The two girls grew up together in a local housing project and were best friends in school. But life has taken them in different directions. Keisha, who renamed herself Natalie, became a lawyer and married into a wealthy family. She and her husband have a large house in "the posh bit" of northwest. Although Leah lives nearby, she has not enjoyed the same success. She works in a social services office; her French-African husband, Michel, is a hairdresser.
In this excerpt, Leah and Michel are preparing to attend a dinner party at Natalie's. Earlier in the novel a woman calling herself Shar had knocked on Leah's door asking for money. Leah gave it, but then felt she'd been scammed. After she confronted Shar on the street, a man on the phone threatened Leah. The excerpt picks up soon after the phone call. NW will be published Sept. 4.
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers may find offensive.
On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.
They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don't worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learned. They do not purchase ethical things because they can't afford them Michel claims and Leah says, no, it's because you can't be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can't be bothered with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. And shit that's him in the phone box and if she had thought about it for more than a split second she would never have said:
— Shit that's him in the phone box.
— That's him?
— Yes, but — no, I don't know. No. I thought. Doesn't matter. Forget it.
— Leah, you just said it was him. Is it or isn't it?
Very quickly Michel is out of earshot and over there, squaring up for another invidious comparison: his compact, well-proportioned dancer's frame against a tall muscled threat, who turns, and turns out not to be Nathan, who is surely the other boy she saw with Shar, though maybe not. The cap, the hooded top, the low jeans, it's a uniform — they look the same. From where Leah stands anyway it is still all dumb show, hand gestures and primal frowns, and of course some awful potential news story that explains everything except the misery and the particulars: one youth knifed another youth, on Kilburn High Road. They had names and ages and it's terribly sad, an indictment of something or another and also not good for house prices. Leah cannot breathe for fear. She is running to catch up, Olive clattering along beside her, and while she runs she finds herself noticing something that should not matter: she looks older than both of them. The boy is a boy and Michel is a man but they look the same age.
— I don't know what you're chattin about bruv but you BEST NOT STEP TO ME.
— Michel — please. Leave it, please.
— Tell your mans to step back off me.
— Don't call my house again, OK? Leave my wife alone! You understand me?
— What the fuck are you chattin' about? You want some?
They bump chests like primates; Michel is knocked back in an ignoble stumble to the pavement, landing next to his ridiculous dog, who licks him in his ear. Now his opponent towers over him and draws his foot back, preparing for a penalty kick. Leah inserts herself between the two of them, stretching out her hands to separate them, an imploring woman in an ancient story.
— Michel! Stop it! It's not him. Please — this is my husband, he's confused, please don't hurt him, please leave us alone, please.
The foot, indifferent, draws further back, for greater range. Leah begins to cry. In the corner of her eye she observes a young white couple in suits crossing the road to avoid them. No one will help. She puts her hands together in prayer.
— Please leave him alone, please. I'm pregnant — please leave us alone.
The foot retreats. A hand looms over Michel as he struggles to his feet, a hand in the shape of a gun, pointed at his head.
— Step to me again — brrp brrp! — you'll be gone.
— Fuck you. OK? I'm not scared of you!
In a blink the foot is drawn back once more and released into Olive's belly. She is propelled several yards into the doorway of the sweetshop. She makes a noise Leah has never heard before.
— You're lucky your gal came for you bruv. Otherwise.
He is already half way across the road, shouting over his shoulder.
— Otherwise what? You fucking coward! You kick my dog! I'll call the police!
— MICHEL. Don't make it worse.
She has a hand to his chest. To any bystander it would appear that she is holding him back. Only she knows that he is not really trying to push her away. In this way the two men part, abusing each other roundly as they go, playing with the idea that they are not finished, that any moment they might turn back and set upon each other. It is only more make-believe: the presence of a woman has released them from their obligation.
Leah believes in objectivity. She is a little calmer now, they are almost home. Who was that woman at the moment of crisis, screaming and weeping, begging on her knees in the street? Silly to admit it, but she had thought of herself as "brave." A fighter. Now she is introduced to a deal-maker, a pleader, a tactical liar. Please don't destroy the thing I love! And her petition had been heard, and a lesser sacrifice made in its place, and in the moment she was simply, pathetically grateful for the concession.
Afterward, too, she could not instantly put herself back to together. It is Michel who holds Olive in his arms, and thumps upon their own front door while Leah goes on not being able to discover which shopping bag contains the key.
— Is she OK?
— She's fine. Unless she's hurt inside. To me she looks fine. Shocked.
— Are you OK?
The answer is in his face. Humiliation. Fury. Of course, it's harder for a man to be objective. They have the problem of pride.
— Guys, you OK?
— Help Lee with those bags.
They go into the kitchen and lay the beloved dog in its bed. She looks OK. Feed her? She eats. Throw a ball? She runs. Maybe she's OK, but for the humans there is still too much adrenaline and trauma to move on. Leah tells Ned the story, purging it of any possible fury or humiliation. Michel the brave! Michel the defender! She puts a hand on her husband's arm. He shrugs it off.
— She pretended she was pregnant. He took pity on us! I was lying on the floor like an idiot.
— No. You stopped it getting any worse than it needed to be.
She puts a hand on his arm again. This time he lets her.
— Do you think we should leave her tonight? I don't know. Ned, could you keep an eye out? Call if there's any problem? Or maybe we should just stay in. Cancel.
It's dinner, says Michel, I don't think we can cancel. She's OK. You're OK, baby, aren't you? You're OK? The two humans look into the animal's eyes for reassurance. Leah struggles to be objective. Wouldn't one of the humans have said the word "vet" by now if they did not fear how much money saying "vet" would entail?
Hanwell never gave dinner parties. Nor did he go out for dinner. That's not true: on special occasions he took his little family to Vijay's on Willesden Lane where they took a table near the door, ate quickly, and grew self-conscious of their conversation. Nothing in Leah's childhood prepared her for the frequency with which she now attends dinner parties, most often at Natalie's house, where she and Michel are invited to provide something like local color. Neither of them know what to say to barristers and bankers, to the occasional judge. Natalie cannot believe that they are shy. Each time she blames some error of placement but each time the awkwardness remains. They are shy, whether Natalie believes it or not. They have no gift for anecdote. They look down at their plates and cut their food with great care, letting Natalie tell their stories for them, nodding to confirm points of fact, names, times, places. Offered to the table for general dissection these anecdotes take on their own life, separate, impressive.
— or just ran. I would have run like the bloody wind and left them to it. No offense, Michel. You're very brave.
— And then did you just both go your separate ways? "Thank you, I've been your potential murderer today, now I must be off ..."
— "Got a rather full day of muggings to attend to with my pretend gun."
— Can you pass that salsa thing? Do you think if you make a gun sign with your fingers that means you actually have a gun or that's like basically your only gun? Recession bites everyone, I suppose ... why should gangsters be immune? Look, I've got one, too. Brrrp!
— Ha! Ha!
— Wait, but, sorry — you're pregnant?
Twelve people at Nat's long oak dining table stop talking and laughing and look at Leah caught wrestling the breast of a duck.
— No, it was just something she said, you know, to stop him.
— Very brave. Quick thinking.
Natalie's version of Leah and Michel's anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn't care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. Meanwhile parents have become old and ill at the very moment their children want to have their own babies. Many of the parents are immigrants — from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China — and they can't understand why they have not yet been invited to live with their children, as is the custom, in their countries. Technology is offered as a substitute for that impossible request. Stair lifts. Pacemakers. Hip replacements. Dialysis machines. But nothing satisfies them. They worked hard so we children might live like this. They "literally" will not be happy until they've moved into our houses. They can never move into our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam. But what do you think, Samhita, yeah what do you think, Samhita, what's your take on this? Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carriage of a 4x4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn't come cheap. But Leah, someone is saying, but Leah, in the end, at the end of the day, don't you just want to give your individual child the very best opportunities you can give them individually? Pass the green beans with shaved almonds. Define best. Pass the lemon tart. Whatever brings a child the greatest possibility of success. Pass the berries. Define success. Pass the crème fraîche. You think that the difference between you and me is that you want to give your child the best opportunities? Pass the dessert spoon. It's the job of the hostess to smooth things over, to point out that these arguments are still hypothetical. Why argue over the unborn? All I know is I don't want to push something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a lemon. Nurse: bring on the drugs! Have you thought about doing it in water? Everyone says the same things in the same way. Conversations tinged with terror. Captive animals, contemplating a return to nature. Natalie is calm, having already traveled to the other side. Pass the laptop. You've got to see this, it's only two minutes long, it's hilarious.
Water shortage. Food wars. Strain A-H5N1. Manhattan slips into the sea. England freezes. Iran presses the button. A tornado blows through Kensal Rise. There must be something attractive about the idea of apocalypse. Neighborhoods reduced to scavenging zones. Setting up schools in abandoned supermarkets and churches. New groupings, new connections, multiple partners, children free of all this dull protection. On every street corner music streaming out of giant jerry-rigged sound-systems. People moving in great anonymous crowds, leaderless, in wave formations, masked, looking for food, weaponry. "Steam rushing" Caldwell, on a Sunday, running down the halls in packs, ringing every bell. Those were the days. Weren't they, Leah? Those were really the days. Pass the whisky. Because it's a facile comparison: you can't be responsible for a complex economic event in the same way you're responsible for going out on the street with the intention to steal. Pass the coffee. It's not any coffee, it's extremely good coffee.
— It's just disappointing.
— It's so disappointing.
— Especially when you've really gone out of your way to help somebody and they just throw it back in your face. That's what I can't stand. Like actually what happened with Leah — Lee tell them about the girl.
— The girl in the headscarf. Who came to the door. It's a really sad story.
All right: I'll tell it --
It's only when they have been kissed on both cheeks, when the heavy front door closes, when they are released once more into the night, that Leah and Michel come alive. But even this camaraderie of contempt can quickly fall apart. By the time they reach the mouth of the tube, Leah has somehow said too much, complained too much, and the delicate spirit level of their relation, their us-against-them, slips, and shows a crooked angle.
— Don't you think they're as bored as you are? You think you're somebody special? You think I wake up every day so happy to see you? You're a snob, just in the other way. Do you think you are the only one who wants something else? Another life?
They ride home in silence, infuriated. They walk through Willesden in silence. They come to the door in silence, both reaching for separate keys at the same time. They do comic battle at the keyhole, and Leah is the one to crack. By the time they are in the hallway they are laughing, and soon after, kissing. If only they could be alone all the time. If the world was just you and me, says Leah, we'd be happy all the time. You sound just like them, says Michel, and puts his tongue in his wife's ear.
The next morning, they arrive in the kitchen in mellow mood, in t-shirts and pants, sloping into the wide expanse of a Saturday morning. Leah goes to check the post. She sees her first. Innocent, beloved little animal, cold, not yet stiff, far from her bed, under the table in the box room, on her side. Bloody foam at her mouth. Michel! Michel! It won't come out loud enough. Or he is in the garden, admiring the tree. The doorbell goes. It is Pauline. Olive's dead! She's dead! Oh my God! She's dead! Where? Says Pauline.
Show me. It's the nurse in her. And when Michel comes and sees and is no less hysterical than Leah, Leah is surprised how grateful she is for her mother's practical way of being in the world. Leah wants to cry and only to cry. Michel wants to go over and over the order of events. He wants to establish a timeline, as if this would change anything. Pauline wants to make sure the area under the table is made antiseptic and that the shoebox is buried at least one foot under the communal grass. No point asking the others, says Pauline — meaning the other occupants — they'll only say no. Hurry up now, she says, try and pull yourselves together. We need to get this done. Have some tea. Calm down. She asks: did it not occur to you she didn't bark when you came in?
From NW by Zadie Smith. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Zadie Smith, 2012
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