NW by Zadie Smith
20 April, 2015
It’s been almost 15 years since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth blew her onto the literary scene as a major star-in-making. I’ve only read her debut and some of her short stories and essays, her observations and detailed commentary belying her tender years but there’s something so assured and sassy about her point of view and style, a mixture of the postmodern with traditional literature which just works. Reading NW, a grittier take on her depiction of northwest London, a dampening of youthful hope reminded me a lot of her peer, David Mitchell. Both have easy styles which belie their literary mastery. You know you are in the hands of true writer.
NW follows the almost mid-life crises of two best friends from the Caldwell Estate in Willesden, Leah Hanwell of Irish and Keisha Blake of Jamaican descent. It is a strong female friendship bound by memories and an understanding both don’t fully comprehend, surviving different ideologies, work ethic and interests. And like all friendships, it weathers choosing different career paths, lovers, marriage and babies.
We start with Leah, working for a charity, married to the man she loves but not wanting his babies. She sees her life drifting by, aimless, living just metres away from Caldwell Estate from which her mother Pauline so desperately tried to get away. They have escaped but not quite. And so she compares herself to Keisha, or Natalie, as she’s now known, a successful barrister married to an investment banker with two beautiful kids. She has penetrated far enough into the upper middle classes from Caldwell for even Leah to feel she no longer knows her friend. And yet there is a terrible ennui from which the two just can’t seem to escape. For Natalie, Leah is the one tumbling from one adventure into another, from her friends spouting philosophy to activism and the ubiquitous dreads. For Leah, Natalie has always focused on moving forward and making something of herself, stoic and resolute. And then there is Felix, thirty-something and finally taking the first steps towards turning his life around: a new relationship, the ‘One’. And poor Nathan, unable to claw his way out of the sink estate, destined to be the one lurking around the same old streets, his acquaintances keeping a wary distance.
Smith’s rendering of northwest London with its multicultural mix of peoples and lives is deftly done. Not much happens, what does is a slow lurch, seemingly unstoppable, of the fracturing of these thirty-somethings’ lives. Is this what it’s all about, seems to be the refrain running through this novel. It seems as though all the characters are caught by surprise at what life has in store for them, unable to grasp the happiness which is supposed to be within their reach. For both Leah and Keisha, their imposter syndrome is drowning out their current happiness, their families unable to understand them.
Overall, one wouldn’t label this a feelgood novel. There is a bittersweet inevitability to what happens to the characters even though you want to shake them by the shoulders and desperately slap them back to reality. But Smith subtly inserts moments of comedy and ordinariness which remind you of the absurdities of childhood and adolescence, the innocence and simplicity which we all seem to lose along the way. I can’t say I sympathised or even understood what these characters are going through, especially Keisha, and yet there is something about Smith’s writing that keeps you glued to the page. She writes beautifully and there is an immediacy, a relevance to her work that is rooted in the present. It’s a portrait of modern urban Britain, one that isn’t often portrayed in a lot of contemporary fiction, and because of this, it is refreshing.
Many in my reading group had issues with NW and I can see why. The novel is described as being about four friends but it’s really about Leah and Keisha. Felix and Nathan’s stories seem incidental although it does tie together a pretty loose arc. And it’s not a particularly easy read. However, I really enjoyed it, especially the scenes with Felix’ much older ex-lover in what reminded me of a Soho championed by Rupert Everett. And Smith’s writing is also a delight. So I now want to read The Autograph Book and On Beauty.
Do also check out out Kim’s review.