Tag Archives: Wilkie Collins

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.

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Book Review: Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White

This isn’t a book that I think I ever planned to read.  It was known (derisively) as a sensational novel, in its day.  Sensational, not in our modern understanding of the word, but meaning provoking intense and myriad emotions.  Collins more or less invented the genre, combining the overly dramatic elements of the French Gothic style popularized in the 19th century with local (re: English) settings.  The formula is pretty simple: Take a helpless maiden, pure and innocent, and put her in some hideous danger. Add at least one lunatic asylum, a deteriorating castle, and at least two false identities.  Write in a manner that will provoke the most clutching of pearls and dropping of monocles.
But seriously, the point of the novels was something akin to a modern soap opera, or miniseries like the Thornbirds. You were meant to go through a range of emotions, from desperate sadness to fear, to hints of the salacious, and usually they end happily.  Or they end in complete ruin.

This book is about a drawing/painting master, Walter Hartright, who goes to the country to teach two half-sisters, Laura and Marion. Walter falls for Marion, but she is already promised to another man.  I don’t want to give up the secrets to this one, because it is a book you read in order to figure out what’s really going on.  In fact, I don’t really feel comfortable saying much else. I will add that the eponymous woman in white is named Anne Catherick, and she escapes from a mental institution in the first pages of the novel, and stumbles upon Walter Hartright as she does so. From then on, a lot of the action revolves around her, though she only wanders dazedly into and out of the book a few times throughout.

I think that much of the ‘sensational’ qualities of the book don’t really hold the test of time, because we are just less likely to clutch our pearls these days. Someone having an affair with a housemaid isn’t going to send me for my smelling salts. I imagine it would have been far more shocking back then, however.

So, my 21st century impressions of the book are as follows:

Collins is very inconsistent when it comes to characterization.  We get to know, very well, the characters of Marion Halcombe, Walter Hartright, and Count Fosco.  Everyone else is a bit flat, and occasionally pretty unfathomable.  I believe the major difference is that we spend large quantities of the narrative being told of events  (through written diary entries & etc.) from the voice of those three characters. We are never admitted into the thoughts of Sir Percival Glyde or Anne Catherick. Even, after all is revealed, we do not fully understand their motivations in some of their actions. It’s strange to me that Collins can provide such a convincing and full account in the first person, but each narrative fails when it attempts to draw the personalities of the other people involved.

The book is interesting, but it is not entirely rewarding.  Add to that, it’s really long (616 pages, for this edition), and it’s not the best value for the time invested. It’s too evil in its evilness, too good in its goodness.  I understand why it would appeal to women in the 19th century, because women were often shielded from emotion over ridiculous notions about their delicacy.  Note to men from 200 years ago: women aren’t that delicate if they aren’t wearing corsets. They don’t faint all the time if they aren’t wearing corsets.

I liked the book for the picture it drew of mid-Victorian era England, because I always want to know more about life in that period. I learn from books like these about things like train schedules, and food, and rampant xenophobia, and distrust of legal procedures.  It’s all going to help me write my novel.  But! If I was not obsessed with Victorian England, and was not researching for a novel, would I find it worth reading?  Hmm.  I hesitate. There are moments I really enjoyed it, and despite my best efforts I could not predict all of the twists and turns–and there is plenty of time to think when you’re reading a 600+ page book.  In that way, it was worth reading.  And I liked the shifting narrative style–we start with the story told by Walter Hartright, but as he exits the action, other narrators take his place. I thought it would annoy me, but it is done seamlessly and does add to the suspense of the piece. All things considered, if given the choice to get the time back, I would still read the book. It’s worth the time, if suspense, the Victorian era, or helpless maidens appeal to you. But…you’d be better off with Dickens.