Tag Archives: London

NW, Zadie Smith (Penguin, 2013)

An experimental novel that is as unpredictable as the UK’s capital of diversity, inequality and loneliness

NW

Zadie Smith tells the stories of Nathan, Felix, Keisha (later Natalie) and Leah, all of whom, the author included, grew up in the North-West of London. Despite their shared origins, each character will go on to live different lives in this Dubliners-esque tale.

The word tale would actually be disrespectful to Smith’s prowess, as she proves with NW that she is in fact a master of realism. She clearly has an excellent understanding of human day-to-day life and behaviour. Nonetheless, in a novel whose aim seems to be to put a name and a face to the people we walk past every day on the tube, the bus and the streets of London, the characters are a little transparent and difficult to picture.

Despite this, the novel is fast-paced, mirroring life in the capital, and there is never a dull moment, with the author switching with ease between the points of view and perspectives of multiple characters. You will have to be on your toes reading NW, as it is sometimes easy to lose track and get lost.

In terms of genre, this one is very hard to define. Some would say it contains elements of post-modernism, but it is not as simple as that, and I have a feeling that the author would not like to be given a label. This is simply Zadie Smith; it is her genre, and it is fresh and revolutionary.

On the whole, NW is extremely thought-provoking novel that proves life – work, relationships, surviving – is difficult regardless of your situation. We do however witness a clear North-South divide in a novel that makes us question life as a whole.

Are we doomed by our backgrounds? Do our upbringings determine our futures? What choices do we really have in life? And is it the survival of the fittest in this concrete jungle?

3.5 Books

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The Yard, Alex Grecian (Penguin, 2013)

The Yard

A year after Jack the Ripper’s string of murders stuns Whitechapel, and there is another killer on the loose in London, the city at the centre of the world.

Alex Grecian expertly interweaves the stories of multiple characters within, and related to, Scotland Yard, leading with the protagonist Inspector Little, who has just joined the “Murder Squad”.

Grecian’s ability to effortlessly glide between stories makes for gripping reading of a novel which echoes the style of a movie, a TV show or even a graphic novel, such as Grecian’s own Proof.

Nonetheless, the author’s tense and suspenseful style somewhat casts into the shadows what is really a rather mediocre plot, which does not produce anything that is extremely exciting or revolutionary.

The novel provides us with an interesting look into the workings of Scotland Yard, and also the developments of forensic science during late 19th century, when many were highly skeptical about the use of fingerprints for identification.

While the story itself is easy to imagine, I was only able to picture modern-day London; the description of Victorian London was not wholly convincing, and I felt that it lacked the muggy, noisy and bustling atmosphere which I tend to associate with the capital during that era.

The Yard is, on the whole, a well-produced, promising debut novel; it is a definite page-turner, in which style and form nevertheless triumph over content and story-line.

3.5 Books

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Filed under History, Mystery

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (Vintage Books, 2010)

Her Fearful Symmetry

Many years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife, which has been widely reviewed, receiving mass critical acclaim; but, having read several negative reviews of Niffenegger’s follow-up novel, I wanted to read it in the hope of producing something a little more complimentary. Unfortunately, I will only be able to do that to an extent.

Her Fearful Symmetry seemed so promising from the outset; a family feud continues in the afterlife as Elspeth leaves her flat (adjacent to Highgate Cemetery, London) to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister, Edie, who currently reside in Chicago.

Initially, I was excited to see various examples of fairy-tale imagery, akin to that of Alice’s fantasy world, particularly in relation to the contrasting “mirror” twins, Valentina and Julia. However, this never fully materialises, as only fleeting magical allusions are made throughout the novel.

This pretty much sums up Her Fearful Symmetry as a whole: incomplete, rushed and lacking that special “something”, which was more than present in Niffenegger’s previous  novel The Time Traveler’s Wife.

There is, nonetheless, another interesting storyline, revolving around Marijke and her husband Martin, whose OCD drives her back to Holland; however, even this emotional story is concluded rather abruptly and anticlimactically.

Audrey Niffenegger’s effortless prose, and her expert knowledge of Highgate Cemetery (obtained by volunteering there herself as a tour guide), certainly create a beautifully gothic setting for this novel. I just feel that it needed more time, nurturing and definitely more pages, in order to carefully round up these well-crafted, interweaving plots.

I guess this is why I try to avoid reading multiple novels by a single author, especially if he/she has already produced what I would consider a “classic”. Nonetheless, I do have faith in Niffenegger, and I feel that she will impress with her next full-length novel.

I sympathise with her as an author, because of the mountainous challenge she had to face in attempting to live up to her ground-breaking debut novel. I believe that to produce one masterpiece, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, is an outstanding achievement, which I hope will be recognised in the near future, through its publication as a “classic”.

It would, however, be a momentous, yet extremely difficult, feat for an author to overcome the “second novel syndrome” and go on to produce multiple classics, deservedly cementing his/her name in literary history for centuries to come.

3 Books

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Filed under Drama, Romance

The House by the Thames and the people who lived there, Gillian Tindall (Pimlico, 2007)

House by the thames

A brief warning to the reader: if you are expecting, like I was,  a present-day London-based One Hundred Years of Solitude, albeit on a smaller scale, you will be somewhat disappointed. I think this teaches us not to judge a book by its cover. What we do receive nonetheless is an endearing historical account spanning nearly half a millennium, about the people who lived in, and the area surrounding,  a lone house on Bankside: number 49.

Gillian Tindall takes us on an exciting journey through the centuries, focussing specifically on the Southwark area, which as she states herself, has often been overlooked by historians.

This is surprising, as we encounter interesting characters from the top of the social and financial hierarchy, like Anna Lee, a famous moviestar, right down to the destitute labourers living in squalor. Tindall delves into the lives of the poor, reminiscent of Dickens, to whom she alludes at times, highlighting the lives of both desperation and privilege on Bankside.

One of the book’s main features is Tindall’s flowing prose style; not typical of historical accounts, it captivates the reader, effectively holding our attention throughout and developing like a novel until its conclusion. In The House by the Thames and the people who lived there, we are educated and enthralled by the socio-economic history of London’s bankside, which takes us from the watermen company of the Sells, the most prominent family in the book, right up to the building of the Globe and the Tate Modern. Together, these two edifices have preserved the life of its quiet neighbour number 49 to the present-day and secured the prolongation of its fame in the future on Bankside.

3.5 Books

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Filed under History, Non-Fiction