Tag Archives: Hampstead

Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith hasn’t had a new novel since 2005, so I was anxious to read this book.  I read On Beauty for a Contemporary British Fiction course I took at university, and read White Teeth just a few months ago.  I really like her writing style. Similar to Salman Rushdie, who I just read, she teeters on the edge of stream-of-consciousness, without making that annoying jump.  She is playful and engaging, sometimes traditional and sometimes challenging. I always enjoy the process of reading her books.

I have to say, unfortunately, that I was very disappointed with this one.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  After all, I like her writing so I expected to enjoy the writing.  I did enjoy the writing, the word choice, the playfulness, the scavenger hunt of dropped clues that gave hints of context, setting, and time. Her endings were never great, but I still enjoyed her other books.  Plus, as with White Teeth, this novel is set in Northwest London (hence the title), which is where Smith grew up.  It is also where I lived while I was in London.  This shouldn’t particularly matter, but I must admit I get a kick out of reading about characters wandering down Finchley Road or through Hampstead Heath, because I can picture it precisely in my mind.  I lived off of Finchley Road.  That area of London, as Smith herself points out, isn’t mentioned much in the history of English literature.  I’m paraphrasing horribly, but she says something like ‘Occasionally, Dickens would wander into that area, and (as I recently discovered) Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White meandered past the Heath.  It’s different from reading about Regent’s Park or Oxford Street.  It’s not as common and for whatever ridiculous reason, it’s special to me.

So maybe my expectations were just too high.

But the plot!  Her previous books were both well plotted, though the endings were iffy to me.  She doesn’t like to put too neat a bow on her works at the end, because life isn’t like that.  I can respect that.  But the other two novels followed the basic tenets of novel-writing.  This one, not so much.

Most obviously in the form of structure.  There are four parts to this book.  The first is about Leah, a young woman living in a council-provided (i.e. government assistance) flat with her husband.  She is depressed and lonely and being pressured to have a baby she doesn’t want.  She has a dog, Olive.  Spoiler***The dog dies.  Do not read this part while on a train. Part 2 revolves around Felix, a man trying to get and stay clean and improve his life. He has no interaction with Leah or any of the characters previously mentioned.  Part 3 is about Natalie/Keisha, Leah’s oldest friend.  This part is the longest, and it covers a period from the girls’ early childhood through present day.  Natalie/Keisha grows up, becomes a lawyer, gets married, has kids.  She seems to have it together from the outside, but up close she is a total mess.  Part 4 weaves the other parts together, sort of.  It’s not wrapped up much at all, and I was left with a lot of questions.  Smith doesn’t lay everything out for you, and that’s fine.  But by the end, I was wondering why we were given this glance into Felix’s life, especially considering what happened to him later.  And why did that happen to him? Since I’m given an intimate look at his life, I feel I should be able to answer it. But I can’t.

There’s also the actual structure, as in the paragraphs and chapters themselves.  Part 1 is Leah’s world, and the narration of her thoughts is told in traditional paragraphs. Dialogue, on the other hand is inset and bolded, single spaced.  Maybe this signifies the fact that her obvious depression means she is swallowed up by her internal thoughts and conversations with others take up less of her mental space.  Interesting idea, but hard to read, to be honest.  Parts 2 and 4 are the most traditional and easiest to read for that fact.  Part 3, Natalie/Keisha’s story is the strangest.  Each little segment of her story (usually 1-3 paragraphs) is told in a numbered sub-chapter, and there are over 180 of them. In them are sometimes little clues to tell you how old Natalie is, and what year it is.  It might say ‘this is the year everyone started saying …’ and you remember (if you’re old enough) that it was the mid-nineties.  Often the title of the sub-chapter is the key to its meaning and place in time.  I have a hard time reading titles–they tend to just not register with my brain.  So I would read the paragraph, and then if it didn’t make sense, go back and reread the chapter.  One chapter was about a musician dying and teenagers being devastated. I looked up at the title to see it was called Nirvana.  Ah, Kurt Cobain then.  early ’90s.  Another sub-chapter was about an incredibly gifted British singer, a woman with remarkable talent.  Title was ‘Beehive’.  This took me a minute, but of course, Amy Winehouse.  It’s almost like a game, a scavenger hunt.  If you were alive, you can piece together the slang or the events that are dropped surreptitiously into the mix and figure out where the story is in chronology.  I enjoyed this part, like a puzzle.  But I found that I was enjoying the game more than the story.

Smith hasn’t lost her ability to write, in any way shape or form. There’s beauty in all her writing, and there’s a fun in it that you won’t find in most writers of ‘literary fiction’. What I will say is that she’s taken another step toward being too-experimental to be comprehensible (to my limited abilities, anyway).  She’s venturing out of the Beatles and into the Plastic Ono Band, and if she continues, I’m not sure I can follow her.

Trip to England–what to see?!

After my last post, which turned out to be far more controversial than I expected, I’ve decided to go for a less contentious topic.

I am going back to England for the first time in 3 years, and am in the midst of deciding what to see.  I’ll be going in August, so thank god the Olympics will be over and the crowds might have dispersed a bit.

There are certain things that I think every tourist should see, and certain things I think are overrated.  So I’m going to share my personal recommendations, but would also love some ideas for attractions and events that are off the beaten track.

I’ve already made a post outlining my favorite parts of the UK, and I do hope to go back to some of them. But first things first, what’s worth seeing if you’re new to London, only there for a short time, want to see as much as possible, etc.

My top 5 recommendations to See/Do:

1-Parliament and Westminster Abbey

The lines are very long in the summer, but I have to say it’s worth it. These are, arguably, the two most important buildings in the country, and they are right next to each other. One has seen the coronation of 36 different monarchs, dating back to William the Conqueror in 1066. The other has seen the gradual shift of power away from the monarchy (and the clergy) to the hands of the Lords, and then to the hands of the Commons.  I was particularly happy to see Poet’s Corner inside Westminster Abbey, where writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Elizabeth Gaskell to Ted Hughes are interred or memorialized. I do, however, recommend going in the off-season or early on a weekday, if possible.

2-British Museum

My favorite part about (most of) the museums in London is that they’re FREE. Not because I don’t value learning or museums in general, but because this takes off the pressure to see everything in one day, in one go.  Which means if you have 20 minutes, you have time to see the Rosetta Stone, the second best collection of Egyptian artifacts (Cairo is, logically, a bit better), pieces off the Parthenon, as well as the same artifacts that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats to write some of their most famous poems.

3-Albertopolis–

This is an area of South Kensington so called because almost every important building you see was created by Prince Albert, or in his memory. If you don’t know, Albert was Queen Victoria’s husband. He urged the purchase of this area of London with the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851, and tons of public buildings were erected on it. It’s a major cultural center and there is truly something for everything. Attractions include the Albert Memorial, the Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall.

4-The Royal Parks–

I can’t narrow it down to just one, but there are lots of parks in London. The Royal Parks refers to the areas technically hereditary property of the crown. These were hunting grounds for the monarchy back in the day. My favorite’s include Hyde Park, St. James’, and Regent’s, but really the point of these parks is just to have some green space in the city. It’s a really green city, with small parks and squares dotted around everywhere. On the first proper Spring day, you see people in droves, sitting in the grass with their shoes off, reading or sleeping or eating picnics. It’s lovely.

5-The South Bank.

None of the individual attractions of the South Bank are my favorite things in London, but if you add them together, along with the view of the Thames, the street performers, and the Saturday flea markets, it’s an awesome atmosphere. Skip the lines and just spend the afternoon walking. If you start from the Tower Bridge, you can walk past City Hall (called Darth Vader’s helmet b/c of its shape), past the reconstructed Globe theatre and the Tate Modern museum (worth a glance, even if you don’t get modern art), past Waterloo station and into the ‘culture complex’ which contains the National Theatre, galleries, festival halls, dining, the British Film Institute, past the Eye, the aquarium, and all the way to Westminster Bridge with its infamous views.  After that long walk, take in dinner and then hit a show at the National, or walk a few blocks to the Old Vic.  Trust me, that’s a good day right there.

Honorable mention–St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge, Chancery Lane and the Royal Courts of Justice, Kensington Palace, Hampstead Heath.

My top 5 to AVOID:

1-The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace

I think the palace is worth a look, but I fail to see the attraction of crowding around tons of people to watch a very sophisticated shift change.

2-A show in the West End

When people talk about London theatre, I’m always interested. I took a theatre course while I was there, with the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington. It was awesome.  But we went to see real theatre, not the musicals on the West End. I admit that I dislike musicals in general, but that is not the only reason this is on my list.  First of all, they are too expensive. About the same price you would pay for a Broadway show in NYC.  But if you go instead to the Old Vic (or the New Vic), to the National, or to smaller theatres in Soho, you can see amazing plays with some real substance for much less money. If you’re under 25 (I think it’s 25), you can get tickets for free or £2-4 online to see shows at the National. And you can see big names there. I saw a play at the Old Vic with Richard Dreyfuss; I saw one at the National with Gary Cole, who I love.  You can see 3 or 4 of these plays for what you would pay to see a West End musical like Billy Elliot or Oliver.  Plus, a lot of the West End shows are just a London cast of an American musical, and why not just see that at home if you’re so inclined?

Piccadilly Circus

This is the London equivalent of Times Square, and appeals to me just as little as its American counterpoint.  A bunch of tourists taking pictures of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not building and the Anteros sculpture.  Tons of shops with trite souvenirs for sale.  Pass.

4-Madame Tussaud’s

I don’t really mind MT’s, and I had to go get my picture taken with the Beatles, but the lines are so incredibly long that it is in no way worth it.  It’s also a bit pricy, after you wait for several hours to get in.

5-The London Eye

I do like the London Eye, so it hurts me to put it on the list. But if you go to London anytime between April and September, the lines are incredibly long.  It’s nice to get to see the city, and they offer some cool private party options if you wanted something special, but for the money and the lines, it’s not worth it just to go on a Ferris wheel. If you’re there in the off-season, then go for it. Otherwise, give it a pass.

Honorable mentions–Harrod’s (way too crowded, way too expensive, not even owned by a Brit anymore). Trafalgar Square (soo crowded.  If you’re going to go, go in off-hours or in the winter. Tower of London (the Tower is worth a look, but no way was I going to wait in the line to see the Crown Jewels).

So, I have seen all of these things, and am going back to a city as a tourist where I used to live.  I’m not sure what to see or do.  There are things I missed the first time around. I never got to go inside St. Paul’s cathedral.  There are things I want to see again–The Camden market, for example.  Decisions! I have a lot more money this trip than during my time there as a student, so I plan to eat some good food and enjoy myself a bit more this time.

I’m also really pleased to say that, this time, I’m going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! So excited.  I cannot wait to see the next big star doing some sort of weird anti-establishment play like Hamlet if he was a transvestite prostitute whose pimp was killed by his business partner, etc. Plus, Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world and I am so thrilled to go back.

If anyone has any suggestions for what to see, where to eat, what crazy performances I should see in Edinburgh, I’d love to hear them.