Until a few years ago few visitors to London would have made it to the parts of the city that collectively form the postcode area known as NW (an abbreviation of North West). Places like Willesden and Kilburn were simply names on the map but not anywhere you’d want to visit. They’re still not in the top 10 places to see in the city but time has given some parts a more trendy and even gentrified feel.The rennovated houses and newly-built homes do however sit uncomfortably with down at heel council estates and crack-addicts just a few streets away. This idea of a divided city forms the basis of NW by Zadie Smith. This is her home turf as it were, an area she ‘escaped’ just as the upwardly-mobile Caribbean Keisha and the half-Irish Leah attempt to do in the novel with varying access.
Keisha makes her escape by changing her name to the more ‘acceptable’ Nathalie and making a name for herself as a commercial barrister tipped to be one of the youngest admitted as Queen’s Counsel. Her marriage to rich and stylish Italian-Trinidadian Franco, is accompanied by two kids and a plush home in the desirable Queen’s Park area – all signals to outsiders that that she’s made the leap from her respectable black working class origins in Kilburn. But it’s an illusion for Nathalie harbours a misery and tries to overcome it through some high-risk adventures.
Her school friend Leah also took the educational route away from her upbringing though her degree in philosophy hasn’t given her the financial success or the feeling of smug satisfaction she sees emanating from Nathalie. Leah is doing Ok, she’s married to a hairdresser who wants to be an online investor whizz kid, living in a council flat not too far from her childhood home and under pressure to have his child. Her work in an office is marred by the resentment of her fellow African-Caribbean workers who all think Michel, a black man of French origins. rightly belongs to them not to Leah. Whenever Leah visits Nathalie she can’t help ending up irritated by her friend’s patronising attitude.
The paths they take to escape from destiny are shadowed by two men from their schooldays: Nathan Bogle who was once the shining boy in school, the flame around whom Leah built an obsessive love. Now he is a crack-smoking addict who hangs around the bus station . Then there is Felix, a boy neither of the others really knew but who descended into drugs before reforming and now appears to be on the cusp of a new beginning to his life.
The interactions with these men propel some of the story forward and force the girls to re-evaluate their lives. But these men – just like the two husbands – are figures in the background whose personalities are not as fully developed as the women and who existed for me simply to move the story along and give us a different perspective.
So what is the story? The details I’ve given above are about as coherent as I can describe it since this is a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. It’s more a kaleidoscope of closely observed scenes of city life and inward reflections about individual struggles.
It’s told episodically in four sections which begin with Leah’s story in a section called Visitation as she goes about her life. At the end she hears of a fatal stabbing in a street in a local street. We then switch to Guest which takes place on the day of the murder and is told through the point of view of the dead man (I wont give the name to avoid spoiling the story). Section 3 Host is about Nathalie which takes us back to their childhood and teenage years and reveals her unhappiness with life. In the final section she meets unexpectedly with Nathan and they go on a wander around their old neighbourhood which acts as a catharsis in her relationship with Leah and her husband.
At times intense, at others rather chaotic and jumbled, this is a novel where the personality of one segment of a city and its population come to life. It’s closely observed from street level as it were with finely judged dialogue. In one scene, where Leah and Michel go for dinner at Nathalie’s home, the conversation is rendered as a meld of banal comments about food fetishes amidst diatribes about the state of the health service, immigration, Islam, birthing strategies, water shortages and so on.
The conversational baton passes to others who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. … Pass the heirloom tomato salad. … Pass the green beans with shaved almonds
Much of the narrative is stream of consciousness which at times is delivered with such pace it’s hard to keep up with. Fresh and original as this novel is in style and fun for that reason to read, overall I was left with the feeling that I was missing whatever it was Zadie Smith was trying to say. Was she trying to show that you cannot entirely escape your past? That there is questionable value about getting on in the world since it doesn’t always make you happy. NW felt like a book that meandered rather than coming to any conclusion.
Author: NW by Zadie Smith
Published: 2013 by Penguin
Length: 294 pages
My copy: I acquired this as a spur of the moment purchase in Birmingham airport as a way of relieving the boredom of a delayed flight to Brussels. The forgot I had it until the 20booksofsummer challenge prompted me to delve deep into the bookshelves.