Zadie Smith’s new novel takes its title from the main postcode area of north-west London, and it’s at least as much about the place as the characters. Smith portrays her setting as a place where past and present, different classes and cultures, coexist in adjoining and overlapping spaces. In a brilliant piece of contrast, a bland list of directions in one chapter is followed by a dense, impressionistic passage covering the actual journey:
Everybody loves sandals. Everybody. Birdsong! Low-down dirty shopping arcade to mansion flats to an Englishman’s home is his castle. Open-top, soft-top, drive-by, hip.hop. Watch the money pile up. Holla! (p. 34)
The characters of NW embody that same complex web of coexistence. The event anchoring the novel is lottery-fund worker Leah Hanwell’s being scammed on her doorstep by Shar, a woman who went to the same school. When first we meet Leah, just before this, she’s clearly feeling somewhat insecure about her life. She is repeating to herself a line she hears on the radio: ‘I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me’ (a line which has no small amount of irony in a novel concerned to show how other people can affect individuals’ lives).
She’s pregnant at thirty-five, having undergone two previous abortions, and still uncomfortable with the idea of motherhood. She’s a white woman of Irish descent married to a French-Algerian, Michel; not everyone she knows is happy about this: ‘no offence’, Leah’s Afro-Caribbean work colleagues say, ‘but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue (p. 29).’ Leah looks at her best friend Natalie – a black girl from Caldwell, the same estate, who became a lawyer, and now seemingly has the perfect middle-class family life, including kids – and now feels left behind: ‘While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became (p. 58). Her search for Shar and the stolen money is therefore driven by the desire for at least one small victory in life.
Towards the end of the opening section, Leah overhears a news report of a local murder. The second partof NW focuses on the victim of that killing: Felix Cooper, a former drug-dealer with no stable family life, who also grew up on the Caldwell estate at the same time as Leah and Natalie. The encounters Felix has during this section illustrate the overlapping spaces I referred to earlier: for example, he buys a car from a posh young man who’s clearly out of his depth talking to Felix; and though Felix’s on-off girlfriend (and ex-customer) Annie comes from a wealthy background, she seems almost relieved to have left behind the world of privilege for her current life. Though Felix is ostensibly rather less well-off than Leah Hanwell, he is actually in his element in the city in a way that Leah, arguably, could never be. As Annie puts it, he ‘finds life easy’ – not that he has everything on a plate, but that he has the right temperament and outlook to deal with what life throws at him. However, even that is no defence against chance, as Felix ultimately discovers.
The novel’s third section focuses on Natalie Blake – or Keisha, as she was known before adopting her new name at university. 185 short chapters chronicle her life from childhood to the present day, in particular her relationships with her family, Leah, and her husband Frank. An interesting effect is created by this section’s starting so early in time. The scenes of Keisha/Natalie’s and Leah’s younger days have an expansive optimism about them, the sense that both girls feel they’re heading for greater things as they leave the estate for university. But there’s a certain dramatic irony here, because we know that the thirtysomething Leah and Natalie won’t find life such plain sailing. It also becomes clear in this part that Frank’s and Natalie’s home life is not as rosy as Leah assumes. The structure of this section – with its short, snappy chapters – gives a driving sense of moving forward through time, which in turn creates a heightened feeling of urgency.
The momentum persists in the next part of NW, though here the sense is of movement through space, as Natalie walks around her local area. She runs into Nathan Bogle, another of her childhood contemporaries; their conversations highlight how far Natalie has moved from her roots, as do some of her other encounters (Smith writes at one point: ‘Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand’ [p. 243]).
Towards the end of the novel, Leah remarks to Natalie, ‘I just don’t understand why [we] have this life.’ Her friend replies: ‘Because we worked harder…We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out…This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve’ (pp. 292-3).
Given the rest of NW, there’s a certain amount of truth to this as applied to Natalie’s and Leah’s lives. But there is also a sense that Natalie is willing it to be so by saying it: after all, the characters’ lives (including Natalie’s own) have been shaped by much more than their own efforts; just look at what happens to Felix. The ending of Smith’s novel could be read as an attempt by Leah and Natalie to exercise control over something that will help them move forward – but what they do will in turn affect someone else. So the connections continue beyond the final page of an incisive portrait of life’s complexities.
Read an extract from NW on the Guardian website.
John Self interviews Zadie Smith.
Some other blogs on NW: Words of Mercury; Muse at Highway Speeds; Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch; Just William’s Luck.