It must be terrible for a first-time novelist to have a runaway success, as Smith undoubtedly did with White Teeth (2000), then face the pressure of trying to come up with something just as good the next time around. Authors like Lucy Maud Montgomery and J.K. Rowlings spent years toiling away on a remarkable first novel, only to rapidly churn out a series of sequels which lacked the polish that gained the original its fame. As much as I enjoyed White Teeth, I never read Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, mostly because everyone I know who did told me not to bother. As I mentioned the other day, I gave up halfway through her third novel, On Beauty (unusually for me): the American characters all spoke improbably like Londoners, and the drama all revolved around faculty politics at a small Boston-area arts college I simply couldn’t relate to or bring myself to care about. I enjoyed White Teeth enough to try again, though, which brought me to this book.
If there are two things Smith does well, it’s London and off-handed witty characterizations. She mentions that a train platform is all “cigarettes and schoolgirls”, and you have enough to see the scene clearly in your mind’s eye. I remember White Teeth doing better with chapters and characters than its over-arcing plot, but in NW Smith deals with nothing more elaborate than the personal lives of a handful of typical residents of the gritty north-west corner of London. We watch them grow up there, find their way to surprisingly respectable schools, become members of the professional class, get married, have children, change their names as teenagers, and deal with the inherent contradictions that befall people and families that span class and racial lines. It doubtless helps that Smith has herself been and done all these things. In particular, stepping up from the socio-economic class of one’s birth has never been an easy trick; it leaves you at first unable to relate to your new friends, and later unable to relate to the old ones, unless they’ve somehow managed to make the same transition themselves. This book won’t lead to the gushing reviews of her debut novel, but it’s a perfectly decent novel; a good book, if not a great one.