Tag Archives: Zadie Smith

More praise for short stories

In November 2013 I wrote a post called In praise of short stories. It has maintained a modest readership ever since. Here is an updated version, with new recommendations.

Now is the time of the short story

Alice Munro

Short stories are flourishing. Both the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the 2013 International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) were applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. Penguin tried out a new publishing format with: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in an electronic as well as small hardback. I am not aware of repeats or intentions to continue this experiment. On-line you can find many journals that publish short stories, and there are many on-line competitions throughout the year.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to William Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies or collections of short stories, unless they are by established authors. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what the reading public say they want.)

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention a few. I refer to my own modest success in 2016 in Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights. [My apologies for misspelling in the earlier version of this post.]

My recommendations

My recommended short story writers (with some links):

And five collections to recommend:

Dorothy Whipple

Elizabeth Day’s top ten short stories, in the Guardian in 2014, draws attention to collections by well-known novelists: Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as some I have listed, who are better known for short stories.

When I originally wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following:

  • Tim Moss – Close to the Edge
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Leaf Story
  • Alice Hoffman – The Red Garden
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Margaret Drabble – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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What I write about when I’m not writing fiction

My good news is that I’m getting back to revising my novel. Thank you, good friends, who have enquired about its progress over the last 12 months. My bad news is that the progress has been very slow, and was much delayed for about 9 months. In fact I put the novel back in its drawer again for a while. I just couldn’t work on it at the same time as on the book I have just finished with my two co-authors: The New Age of Ageing.

145 writing keyboard

Writing fiction and non-fiction

I have tried and failed on several occasions to keep two large writing projects on the go at the same time – one non-fiction and the other a novel or short story. It just doesn’t seem to work. I am wondering why. In part it is because they require conflicting skills.

The New Age of Ageing, and non-fiction writing generally, requires methodical and thorough research, solid arguments, a sequence of writing that reflects the ideas under discussion. Some skills needed are the same as for fiction, such as hooking interest early, clarity and presenting factual information that relates to people’s lives. What I don’t need is to go shooting off after a new narrative idea, or to leave the reader in suspense at the end of a chapter. No, every assumption and connection needs to be considered, verified, scrutinised. Flights of fancy must be followed by reasoned hypothesis.

Structural problems of the two genres are very different. For the novel I have a plot in 23 chapters. I have been challenged by the novel’s structure, deciding on advice to change to alternating chapters having originally written it in alternating pairs. The change resulted in an improved novel but hours of confusion as I had to re-label everything on my computer and on the hard copies. You need to be well organised about peripheral things when writing a novel. Well I do, being a planner rather than a pantser. Zadie Smith referred to micro managers and macro planners in an influential lecture at Columbia University in March 2008. I am happy to quote her descriptions, because I admire her work and recently wrote a post challenging a comment she made about writing and therapy.

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle.

I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

Structure for the book on ageing posed different challenges. Each chapter required a great deal of revision, recasting, editing, removal, filling gaps. It often seemed that I had all the right ideas but in the wrong order. I also had two co-authors to whom reference needed to be made for everything as they are also responsible for the content. Their feedback notes were invaluable, our talk was even better.

I can get very passionate about ageing and the issues and challenges that are not getting enough attention. I loved writing our manifesto for the book, getting clearer and clearer what it was we wanted to say. I loved the process of taking our combined ideas and moving them to a place I could not have gone on my own. So my involvement in writing that book was social as well as requiring some good research and communication skills.

243 New Age cover

Writing my novel is more isolating. To write the novel or the book on ageing I sit for hours in my writing room, looking out occasionally at Dartmoor and its changing weather patterns. Sitting. Tapping. Rearranging papers. An observer would not see the difference. But in the end, the novel has been a very isolated and individual activity.

So they require different skills, but that does not quite explain why I can’t do write fiction and non-fiction at the same time.

Working one project

About 9 months ago I decided to put the novel back in the drawer (yes again). After all we had a contract for our book on ageing and a deadline for completion. And I had two co-writers to answer to. And to be honest I had got to a sticky point in the revisions.

I had found that my fiction writing is not good enough at showing or even telling the reader about the emotional state of the protagonists. I tend to assume it’s obvious. In my best moments I think that is honouring the intelligence of the readers, allowing them to do some work. But when my intelligent readers said that I needed to work on this I can only agree. It has taken me some rumination, reading novels and some guidance from my on-line course to help me see what I must do. That’s what I am working on now.

Blogging

94 Blog on tablet

I can’t concentrate on fiction and non-fiction writing at the same time. However, one genre of writing has proved itself compatible with both fiction and non-fiction – blogging. The Book Word blog has been building slowly but steadily throughout this time, and I have posted every five or six days. In the posts I explore writing issues, review books, continue the series on older women in fiction and am able to look at all things connected with books and writing that take my fancy.

Perhaps I can combine blogging with both fiction and non-fiction because blogging requires some creativity, some research, some care over the communication of the content. And I am my own publisher for the blog. It’s not a commercial undertaking, so if a post bombs there is no consequence except to my pride. The deadlines are close, but I can (and do) alter them to suit my life.

It’s back to the novel

So … I am taking the chapters and looking at the emotional arcs of the characters and hoping that all the reading and writing and thinking I have done will help me see afresh how to communicate the emotional life of my characters.

And I am doing all the other things put on hold while we finished The New Age of Ageing. That’s another post in preparation! What I do when I’m not writing. Watch this space.

Related posts

This was the 6th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

And here’s a post with some excellent ideas: 10 things to do while your MS is resting from Victoria Griffin Fiction blog in July last year.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to be published by Policy Press in September 2016.

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Filed under Books, Libraries, My novel, Publishing our book, Writing

Writing as therapy, despite Zadie Smith

… most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. [Zadie Smith, from  interview on Random House site*].

Really!!? It’s a poor arguments that uses the phrase ‘the kind of people who …’. And that suggests underhandness by the choice of the word ‘moonlight’. I wonder if Zadie Smith has reconsidered this rather sneery comment. She is an excellent writer herself, of course, and one who knows about the craft and skill of writing as art. But she should know that for some people writing is therapeutic.

145 old handsLet us make a distinction between writing for publication (art) and writing as therapy and probably not for publication.

Therapeutic Writing

For people who are hurt, traumatised and perhaps depressed, writing is often part of their recovery. Therapeutic writing has a pioneer: James W Pennebaker. It has 30 years of established research and guide books, such as Gillie Bolton et al’s Writing Works. And it has many, many practitioners, who use writing as part of a therapeutic process, in groups and in individual support. We should not be surprised that writing is beneficial – both art and music therapy are well established.

In addition to individual therapeutic writing we can note that it has also been used to help people in groups.

For survivors of torture

At Freedom From Torture there is a writers’ group called Write to Life. The members are refugees and their mentors. The refugees have experienced violence and torture and writing is part of their healing process. FFT also has a bread-baking group, art therapy and a gardening group. Therapeutic activities are not limited to writing and talking. Some of the benefits come from the social aspects of the group’s activities.

239 The Land Hasani

For people with dementia

In Reading Writing and Dementia I described how people with dementia have benefited from writing therapies. You can listen to a podcast of an event held by English Pen at Free Word Centre in March 2014: Dementia and the Power of Words.

Gemma Seltzer’s article (in 69 Mslexia March/April/May 2016) describes co-writing with older people in a project funded through Age UK. In the project called ‘This is How I see You’, Gemma talked to many of the people in a day centre and returned with a poetry portrait of each of them. She comments that it raised issues about her right to write about someone else’s experience of dementia.

For prisoners

In prisons, reading and writing can make a huge difference to prisoners’ lives. Many prisoners have very limited literacy skills. There are many projects helping prisoners to learn to read and to read more. The Writers in Prison Network uses reading and writing workshops and mentors to achieve their aims. Their strap line is ‘helping you change for the better’. Here’s a link to a Day in the life of a writer in residence.

How does therapeutic writing work?

It is the process of writing that helps in the therapeutic process. Sometimes it the expression of feelings, too dangerous or painful to say out loud, but needing some articulation. Sometimes it is the act of choosing words, metaphors, analogies that opens up thinking and reactions in the writer. Metaphors and imagery are ways into understanding depression, for example. And the metaphors and images we use, unconsciously, to make sense of our lives, can be revealed and new ones tried out through writing.

Sometimes the act of choosing words, in writing clarifies a thought. A writer can then reflect and learn from their insights, rather than being locked in a maddening repetitive cycle of emotions. How do I know what I think until I write it down?

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Sometimes the significance is in being heard – by a group, a therapist or a friend. And sometimes the responses of a group to a writer’s efforts has a therapeutic effect. Having a voice is to have agency and presence in the world.

Publishing therapeutic writing

The projects I’ve described are about the process of writing. This process does not necessarily produce art or even text for sharing. Sometimes writing that began with therapeutic intent emerges to have something to say to others and is worth publiccation.

Related

Not long ago, in January, I wrote a related post called Reading is good for you. Today’s post was conceived as a companion piece, but quickly turned into a post about therapeutic writing.

* I tried to check the source of Zadie Smith’s quotation, but although it is repeated many times on the internet I couldn’t find it.

Over to you

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you have experience of therapeutic writing?

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Libraries again and again

National Library Day is Saturday 6th February. Here we are again, defending public libraries, arguing for them to be kept open in the face of so-called austerity, reminding people of the value of free access to books.

Public libraries are in danger. Cutting them is a shortsighted policy; libraries contribute in the long run to many, many people’s knowledge and understanding, to their creative abilities and to their imagination and wonder. They do not cost much, in comparison with, say Trident or HS2 or keeping people in prisons.

We need to hear and repeat the arguments supporting public libraries from those who benefitted from open access and a friendly librarian in their youth, from those who are out-of-pocket and who benefit from reading for free (as well as using the other facilities of public libraries) and for the civilising influence of culture on a country. Neil Gaiman said that libraries are

the thin red line between civilisation and barbarism.

I bring three witnesses to support National Library Day.

Peter Balaba, Head Librarian, Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda.

Peter says,

Nakaseke is a very rural region. Most of the population live as subsistence farmers, growing crops like coffee, maize or beans or raising animals. This is not a rich area. Perhaps sometimes people have enough produce to sell and make extra money, but very few people have books in their homes. No one has a computer to access the internet. This is why the library is so important for the community here.

For the farmers of Nakaseke, the information the library provides is vital. It can mean the difference between a good crop and a bad one. A good crop will feed their families and leave something over to sell. A bad crop can mean ruin.

There are no books in the schools here – they do not even have money to buy desks or chairs for the children. The classrooms are bare. So we run outreach programmes for the children, which means that up to 100 children might be in the library – so many we have to put half of them in our reading tent outside.

Nakaseke library has been supported by Book Aid International since 2003. Their slogan is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES.

66 Bookaid logo

Zadie Smith, novelist

23 Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith tried to save Kensal Rise Library in London, but it was closed with 5 others in 2011, saving £1m annually.

I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library. But then, it’s always difficult to explain to people with money what it’s like to have very little. But the low motives [of the government] as it tries to worm out of its commitment … is a policy so shameful that they will never live it down.” Local libraries, Smith said, are “gateways to better, improved lives”. (Guardian 16th 2015)

The article that reported this goes on to list other libraries under threat in Fife, Newcastle, Liverpool and Lewisham in London. Writers such as Zadie Smith and many others are active in the campaign to save them.

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Ali Smith, writer

229 Ali Sm

She is one of the most inventive writers of the current day. Her novel How to be both was the success of last year. In 2015 Ali Smith also published Public Library and other stories. The book contains 12 short stories, none of them called Public Library. The title comes from the interspersed comments from other bookish people about the importance of libraries, especially for younger people. The theme of the collection concerns the benefits of reading, not only for writing but also for connections between people.

Ali Smith’s stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, delights readers with her inventiveness, her creativity, her quirky view on things so that it is as if she takes you by the shoulders and shows you a familiar thing in a different way.

She is playful with words and informative about their histories. And she lists, lingers on lists of everything. Her stories connect people through fiction, (Katherine Mansfield) and other cultural things (Dusty Springfield, Scotland).

The importance of books and libraries cannot be denied.

One short story from the collection made available to download and read by Pool here: The Art of Elsewhere.

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith, published in 2015 by Hamish Hamilton. 220 pp

Charlie Brown

And another witness – Peanuts!

223 Peanuts library

Linked post

Library cuts are pay cuts. Really! December 2014.

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Who or what are literary prizes for?

What purposes do literary prizes serve for readers? It’s clear that they provide writers with recognition and publicity that leads to sales. And for publishers it provides publicity that leads to sales. And for sponsors I guess it adds to their good image (which I assume is designed to boost sales somewhere along the line). So there is a pattern here.

67 MBP dated large

There are prizes for first novels, for biographies, a Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, American prizes such as the National Book Award, and international prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature (for a body of work), the Man Booker Prize, the International Man Booker Prize and several awards for different genres (such as crime, sci-fi, children’s literature etc). For all I know there is a prize for last novels.

Zadie Smith is sure that winning a prize is essential for new writers to get noticed. Not everyone is convinced of their value. In the New York Times last month, Daniel Mendelsohn asked

What purposes do these prizes serve? Are the values they promote aesthetic or commercial? And how on earth do the judges arrive at their decisions?

Jennifer Szalai recalled what is said when things go wrong:

The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for “The Old Man and the Sea,” Faulkner for “A Fable”). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for “Gone With the Wind”). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (“Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel “turgid” and “obscene”). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. “Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth,” “Prize Y has never ben awarded to me.”

She concludes that literary prizes should honour good books. Mendelsohn claims that prizes show what is prized and that as a result the real winner is culture itself.

But what about the reader? What do we get from these awards? I used to think that prizes were normative, restricting readers’ choices, operating a bit like the 2for1 tables at Waterstone’s, or reality tv competitions (the Great British Write Off?) or the bestseller lists in the weekend papers. And it is true that plenty of good books miss the awards: the slow burners, books that are idiosyncratic, specialist, appeal to small scale interests, and especially non-fiction and translated books. But we shouldn’t expect the awards to do everything for the book trade.

Awards do draw attention to some books, especially through their long- and shortlists. I admit to being very interested in long- and shortlists, and not much interested in which book or author wins (especially when the press starts speculating about muggin’s turn, as they did Jim Crace for the MBP this year and Julian Barnes in the past).

Here are some awards that have added to my reading pleasure:

IMPAC prize, especially for its longlist, because it is the outcome of nominations for high literary merit by public libraries across the world. Consequently some less prestigious, less artsfartsy books get identified, and frequently the shortlist (and winner) includes novels in translation. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (2007) and Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (2010) are two examples. The list this year is very long – 152 titles. Great! Lots to discover.

67 Out Stealing

67 WPFF logo

Women’s Prize for Fiction because it promotes women writers and women are still less published, less reviewed and the literary scene benefits from positive discrimination. See the blogpost in praise of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for a fuller discussion. This year I read and enjoyed all six of the shortlisted titles.

The title of this next one deserves a prize of its own: Not the Man Booker Prize, a list nominated by readers of the Guardian and although readers vote in an arcane system that can only be likened to the rules of Mornington Crescent (see BBC Radio4 show I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue) the panel make a final judgement. I was pleased to see that Magda by Meike Ziervogel lead the readers’ voting, even if Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life actually won.

The Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, because there is some excellent writing and subject matter being written about every year and it’s not all fiction. There is always biography in the list, and history and other books that might slip by. This year I have been interested to read reviews of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves. And Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins also looks very interesting.

And I will continue to rely on several other ways of finding good reading: reviews, end of year and holiday recommendations, word of mouth, gifts, browsing in bookshops, Twitter and my local library.

67 MBP2013

Meanwhile I have one and a half books left to read from the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. So far I have read 19cms and still have 8cms to go, including the winner – Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries.

 

What do you think of Literary Prizes? Have you come across any good reads from a prize? What have literary prizes ever done for you?

 

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NW by Zadie Smith

Londoners know their city through their own locality. Zadie Smith’s novel NW considers four people from north-west London, who try to find their way out of the council estate of their birth and to make an adult life in London. None of them succeeds. NW London includes Kilburn and Willeseden.

It’s a novel about place and how it holds you, especially people at the end of all the important lines: women, immigrants, school failures, alcoholics, drug addicts, children. There is a tired joke, which is also a truth, that people who live north of the Thames treat south of the river as terra incognita, and that south of the river folk think those who live north might be in the area marked there be dragons. It’s another take on the connections between identity and location. ‘Should have gone Dalston,’ says Nathan Bogle more than once. It jolts me as Dalston is my territory. And I know how different it is from Kilburn. NW is about the city I have lived in for over 30 years.

23 NW
I found myself feeling very tense as I read this novel; tense with the stress of city life, on the streets, buses and the tube, the perpetual movement of people, the need for wariness, the noise and language and the sucking hold of the place. Tense with keeping the right distance, getting ahead, not putting yourself in danger, looking out for your friends.

Out-of-towners know London by the underground map. Dalston is in Hackney, the only London borough with no tube line, so I understood how Felix has a different view:

He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not ‘Oxford Circus’ but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. ‘Wimbledon’ was countryside, ‘Pimlico’ pure science fiction. He put his index finger over Pimlico’s blue bar. It was nowhere. Who lived there? Who even passed through it?

The four protagonists are in turn the focus on one section. All born on the Caldwell Council Estate, all students at Brayton Comprehensive School, they differ in ethnicity, and in their paths away from the Caldwell.

Leah, married to an Algerian, of Irish extraction is drifting in life, not wanting to have a child. She became pregnant but had an abortion without telling Michel. Her story is told in short numbered chapters.

Keisha/Natalie is fiercely clever and Leah’s best friend. She becomes a lawyer, a barrister, but despite attaining a middle class life puts it all at risk for sexual experimentation, which her husband can’t handle. I found that Keisha/Natalie’s section was the most readable: 182 short sections, some only a sentence, some a paragraph, some longer.

Felix is a man trying to escape his demons – alcoholism, drug abuse, women. He is mugged. The section covering his day making steps to improve his life is covered in three more discursive sections, labelled with area codes: NW6, W1, NW6 again

Rodney, a shady and dangerous but attractive man, drifts on the edges of the lowest of society. His section is brief, and covers the geographic areas of a walk he takes with Keisha/Natasha up to Archway, the suicide bridge, and back. You’d have to be as high as Keisha/Natalie to spend time with him. Or live in Dalston.

Some critics have suggested that together these four sections do not make a coherent novel, there are disjunctions between them. There is an obvious point that London is like that, the different areas do not hang together. But this is a tense and jagged city, where loyalty and love are to be found mostly – but not exclusively – among the women, the impossibility of escaping the pull of one’s past, these are reflected in the structure and the style of the novel.

Zadie Smith is rightly much praised for her dialogue. Here’s some texting dialogue. Leah contacts her friend Natalie, the lawyer.

woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer
delighteful
cant take private calls in pupil room what’s up
big news
You got cat aids?
free may sixth?
You catch cat aids may sixth? I am free if not in court. I big lawyer lasy these days innit Big lawyer lady jesus
shit typer
lady jesus I am getting married
!!!!!?????
on may
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests

And more conventionally, Natalie/Keisha talks with her sister, Cheryl, while holding her niece Carly.

‘Why am I being punished for making something of my life?’
‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid , man!’
Natalie Blake could not be stopped. ‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a serious practice – do you have any idea how few –‘
‘Did you really come round here to tell me what a big woman you are these days?’
‘I came round to try and help you.’
‘But no one in here is looking for your help Keisha! This is it! I ain’t looking for you, end of.’
And now they had to transfer Carly from Natalie’s shoulder to her mother’s, a strangely delicate operation in the middle of the carnage.

I agree that her dialogue is spot on, captures the rhythms, the colloquialisms and idioms of London talk. And she is also lyrical and inventive in description. Chapter 9 reproduces google-type directions from A – B, complete with caveats. ‘These directions are for planning purposes only.’ Chapter 10 is a lyrical repeat of the journey, impressionistic, drawing on the senses, of smell, sound, sight and including a commentary on aspirations of the inhabitants. Some of it is alliterative (‘Lone Italian, loafers, lost, looking for Mayfair.’), poetic (‘Open-top, soft-top, drive-by, hip hop.’); shocking (‘Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster.’); but it’s all London.

Overall this novel presents a bleak view of life in London, but it moves along with verve and spirit. It deals with serious matters. I read in one blog review that this is the first novel to discuss women who do not want to be mothers. I am not sure about that. But it is the first novel I have read where the skills required to be a Londoner are laid out. Perhaps that’s why it made me feel so tense when I was reading it.

I’m currently reading all the shortlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. This is my fourth. So much good writing by women.

23 Zadie Smith

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