Brimming with life, Zadie Smith’s vibrant novel NW follows the complex lives of four people who grew up on the same council estate in North West London.
NW is made up of five sections: the first story is Leah’s who is unhappy in her marriage and the expectations placed upon her; the second follows a day in the life of Felix as he visits his father and his ex, and runs errands around London; the rest of the sections tell the story of Leah’s friend Natalie (formally Keisha) from childhood to adulthood. In short, NW is a character study of people all joined by a place.
What struck me at first when reading NW was the style. The first section of the novel is written in a modernist style and feels like an experiment in form – there are poems, text in the shape of a tree and a mouth, printed directions from Google maps, and no speech marks. The modernism seems to peter out, with the other sections written in a more realist style, although there is variation and experimentation throughout the novel. The third section, for example, is made up of nearly 200 numbered chapters written in the pluperfect tense and from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. I was unsure why this section was written in this way – it could have worked just as well in the same form as the previous sections. Yet, the small chapters (some are pages long; others simply a sentence) work effectively to give us snapshots of Keisha growing up, of Keisha becoming Natalie, and her life now. Their fragmented nature mean that we never get close to Keisha/Natalie, yet we seem to learn so much about her and other characters, too. Reflecting on the book, though, I remember many of the sections for their style rather than the story itself, so perhaps their experimental nature detracted from the story slightly for me.
Leah and Natalie feel central to NW. Not only are their sections the longest and begin and close the story but their friendship seems to be at the core of the book that takes place in the great, sprawling, bustling city that is London. In this way, Felix’s story didn’t necessarily seem to fit. It didn’t detract from the rest of the book though, in fact I enjoyed reading his story and its addition worked well to paint the picture of another person living in the area. The stories of all the characters, particularly Leah and Natalie’s, evoke what seem to be the major themes of the book – belonging and identity. The different versions of yourself as you pass through time and grow up, who you want to be and who you end up being. It’s here where Smith’s writing is at its most insightful, with startling observations breathing yet more life into this novel.
And it’s life which bursts from the pages of NW. Smith vibrantly and vividly depicts modern North West London with its sights, smells, and sounds. I often felt as if I was sitting with Leah in her garden looking at the ‘fat sun’ that heated the city or walking down the streets of Willesden or Kilburn. With a title like NW you would expect the location to play a large part in the novel, and it’s this strong sense of place which reverberates throughout the novel and is a standout feature of the book for me. Smith clearly has an ear for dialogue too, with it being sharp and realistic throughout, bringing more realism and life into the novel’s pages.
Zadie Smith’s NW is a fast-paced and vibrant novel which captures life in chaotic London. While some of the sections feel experimental and, at times, secondary to the story, Smith brilliantly paints her characters’ lives, their relationships, their situations, and their speech, creating a rich and energetic novel.
Have you read NW? Have you read any of Zadie Smith’s other novels?